Archive for June 25th, 2010

The dysfunction of our Washington media, in a snapshot.

Jun 25, 2010 in Journamalism

Sullivan (whole post worth reading):

David Brooks writes the following sentence today:

The most interesting part of my job is that I get to observe powerful people at close quarters.

Like David, I am privileged in many ways to be able to meet and talk to a lot of powerful figures. David and I have been at many functions of this sort together, but I have to say I disagree. These interactions are the least interesting part of my job, and often the most misleading. Every now and then, you discover a nugget that adds something. But in general, you get the schtick and spin, larded with a few anecdotes to make you feel flattered to be included in the salons of power. And what still amazes me is how deferent most of even the A-list journos are (with a few glorious exceptions). In fact, the definition of an A-list journalist in Washington is the person who is chummiest and closest to the people they cover. They have risen to the top in part because they know what questions the powerful really don’t want to answer – and decide not to ask them.

As Chomsky said, there’s really no need for a conspiracy. It’s just a simple question of incentives and human nature. Those with power almost by definition don’t want the press to be too inquisitive or challenging, because doing so undermines that power. That’s the precise point of journalism, to be a check on power. So what do those in power have to challenge the press? In fascist societies they can simply jail or kill those who ask too many questions, but in our society the powerful simply mete out what they have: power. Access. The illusion of hot insider info, which usually turns out to be planned leaks or superficial. In a free society, our leaders simply don’t have to invite in a challenging journalist when they can invite over a “bigger” journalist who will be nicer.

The least amazing thing about a powerful person should be that they’re charismatic and dynamic. Outside of societies where power is decreed by bloodline, such will ever be the case. Odds are that no matter how horrible a leader somebody in America is, they’re likely pretty easy to get along with in person, because they’re politicians, and that applies to high-ranking military as well. I’m sure George W. Bush would shake my hand and give me a pat on the back, and we could throw some small talk around, and I’d probably enjoy the actual encounter itself. At the same time, he was one of the worst presidents in our nation’s history and we will spend decades cleaning up the damage he did to both our land and our government.

A journalist’s job is to look past the charm and get to the facts, the things that actually matter to us as a country, as citizens who want to keep their leaders in-bounds. I don’t care if there’s a gang of rude assholes in D.C. as long as they’re doing the right thing.