Harrison Salisbury’s old book on The New York Times, Without Fear or Favor, is worth reading these days, especially for the members of the fourth estate.
The book focuses on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and legendary newspapermen like Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post and Abe Rosenthal of the Times. It tells of how they and their reporters dug in.
The Post was initially criticized for making too big a deal out of a story about a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters. But the paper kept working the story and kept finding more rot within and we all know how it turned out. In the case of the Times and the Pentagon Papers, there was no cowering to White House warnings of publishing state secrets or compromising national security. It was in the public interest to publish. They published.
The late James Thomson, who was a curator for Neiman media fellowships at Harvard, issued a warning in the Salisbury book about journalists who, by contrast, become too much a part of the establishment. To use an old 1970s word, they get co-opted. They just move along, responding to what the government puts out. They “seldom stay long enough with one central story or issue.”
His warning is something that might well be heeded today. Times have changed since the Watergate period of reporting, a period, it should be said, that had its excesses. But today there appears to be less independence in the media, less sense of outrage at abuses of power. Journalists of the baby boomer generation who were anti-establishment back then are old and more passive now, co-opted if you like. And the business has changed. In the 24-hour news cycle, the pressure is to move on to the next story without due diligence on the one that just happened.
Much wonderment has been expressed recently on why stories of abuse of power don’t seem to hurt Stephen Harper’s government. The stories don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.
It’s not because journalists don’t sense there is something very serious going on. The conservative Sun chain recently went after the government’s penchant for muzzling critics. The conservative National Post wrote that there is no excuse “for the paranoia, secrecy, rule-bending, shirking of due process and committee bullying that has rightly become the subject of opposition ire in recent years.” That list is quite an indictment. It’s the type of stuff that in the 1970s would have spawned all kinds of Woodwards and Bernsteins. Not today, though.
During the election campaign, there were stories of voter-suppression tactics by the Tories, of barring people from rallies, of pork-barrelling with G8 funds and the like. In the last week of the campaign, there was a seeming attempt by a Conservative operative to present Michael Ignatieff as an Iraq war planner. One can imagine what would happen if this kind of thing, straight out of Nixonland, happened in a U.S. campaign. The media would blow the roof off. Here, the story passed in a day or two without further comment.
Our media, particularly The Canadian Press, have performed well in breaking stories on ethical abuse. And there have been examples, such as The Globe’s reporting for several years running on the Afghan detainee controversy, of staying with a story. But we get softer with time. In the Chrétien era, there was less let up. With much help from the Auditor-General, we chased the Liberals down on Shawinigate and Adscam.
In a majority government, particularly one headed by an all-controlling Prime Minister, one of the few checks on power is strong journalism. It is what holds the government to account. If the standards of the media decline in carrying out this function, the standards and quality of democracy itself will decline.