Journalists like to think of themselves as watchdogs, nipping at the heels of the powerful and guarding democracy. Progressive critics see them as lapdogs for the political and corporate elite. More often reporters are just tired old dogs asleep on the porch.
Take a recent Sunday morning adventure at NBC studios in Washington, D.C., where I joined a pack of these wet dogs taking shelter from a downpour in the NBC lobby. The NBC staff wheeled out a TV cart so reporters could watch “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert. Russert interviewed Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board (a Pentagon advisory panel charged with overseeing military preparedness), and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who has emerged as one of the few strong congressional voices against war.
It’s a Sunday routine: At the end of the show, reporters gather outside the front door and beg the guests for a few soundbite scraps.
Until then, they sprawl out on benches in the lobby, absent-mindedly watching the interviews. This is the state of American media, the free press: reporters and camera crews watching an interview on television as it takes place just down the hall. Journalists don’t like the ridiculous setup, but they don’t have much choice. They have to meet the demands of the corporate media conglomerates they work for, and to do that they have to play the game.
Some read newspapers. One takes notes. Another reporter talks on a cell phone to his wife. “Yeah, they’re just bickering right now No, I don’t know how much longer it will be.”
They listen to Perle beat the drums of war. It leads to a discussion of democracy. He says that it would be good if Israel were surrounded by democracies. He says it would be good if Iraq were a democracy.
“Democracies,” Perle says to Russert, “do not engage in aggressive wars.”
The dogs awake.
“What? Is this guy smoking crack?” one reporter nearly shouts. Everyone laughs and nods in agreement. The reporter expressed the frustration and outrage that millions of people around the world know, and what many journalists understand, but almost never articulate.
As I watched the interview, I wondered if Russert was also thinking, “What is he smoking?” I hoped he would say, “Well, Mr. Perle, either the laundry list of foreign aggressions in U.S. history (covert actions like those in Guatemala in 1954, proxy aggressions like in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and overt aggressions including Vietnam and Panama) are make-believe, or the United States is not a democracy. Which is it?” Russert never questioned the core of Perle’s arguments: his assumptions on democracy, power, and violence. He moved on to the next topic. His silence spoke volumes.
The dogs go back to sleep.
The program ends. The reporters trudge outside and assume their positions. The first to pounce was the reporter who made the “smoking crack” comment. But she didn’t pounce. She asked a generic question nearly identical to one Russert asked Perle. Perle gave a nearly identical answer. The reporters asked questions they already knew the answer to, and Perle handed them scripted answers (reporters sometimes do this so that on their broadcasts they can use their footage instead of a clip from a talkshow). Voila. News is made.
It’s like a game with unwritten rules, but neither party wants to admit they’re playing. Journalists are not dumb. Most of them have an idea of how the world works and how power structures operate. They are generally informed of world news. They have the ability to ask questions, like those on the minds of the millions of people who took to the streets weeks ago, yet most choose not to. They operate in a much larger system of corporate-controlled media, and must base their decisions on what they think is the best way to survive in that system.
Journalists who want to work for the national bureau of a major network know they must not only ask the right questions but also avoid asking the wrong ones. Asking hard questions could earn a reporter a reputation as a troublemaker (it once could earn the reporter a reputation as a “muckraker”). There are rewards in this system for complacency. There are few rewards for critical thinking. At that moment, I couldn’t handle it. Moments earlier this reporter had seen through the lies. I wanted to grab her and yell, “YOUR COVER IS BLOWN. I know you aren’t clueless. You know the truth, and you have no excuse for not speaking it.”
Something had to be said, so I jumped in and asked, “Mr. Perle, you said that democracies do not engage in aggressive wars. Could you please explain, then, how you view this ‘pre-emptive war,’ against the will of the international community and millions of people around the world?”
I think it caught the reporters more off-guard than it did Perle. He avoided the question, and calmly said that this is not an aggressive war because Iraq has violated U.N. resolutions. He answered another reporter’s question and walked away.
Next came Kucinich, and the situation repeated itself. The reporters repeated Russert’s questions nearly verbatim. They were more aggressive with Kucinich, though, and I had trouble getting a question in. So, when Kucinich walked away, I followed him and asked a few questions about his vision for a Department of Peace in the federal government, which angered the other reporters.
“Why don’t you come say that over here so we can all use it?” they yelled. Kucinich didn’t respond. “Fine,” one reporter shouted, curtly. “Goodbye to you too.” We had broken the rules of the game.
The behavior of some journalists is frustrating, but it is not enough to simply blame them for acting like lazy dogs. Journalists work within larger institutions that constrain them. [For more on these constraints, check out the propaganda model presented by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent or in Herman’s Myth of the Liberal Media.] They can, and should, push against the constraints of those institutions, but that is only a partial solution. We need media reform movements working to change the ownership and regulation of media. [For more on this see the work of Robert McChesney and check out his new book with John Nichols, Our Media, Not Theirs.]
In a media system not dominated by corporations and money, it would be easier for journalists to do more than beg, roll over, and have their bellies rubbed. They could refuse to walk on a leash. They could bark, growl, and sometimes bite.
WILL POTTER is an intern for a national newspaper based in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Texas Observer, the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News. In his spare time he pays attention to politics and the state of American media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org