Respond to this Article March 2001

Reassigning Tim Russert

Getting Washington Reporters to Cover The Things That Count

By Jonathan Rowe

Those who offer suggestions to the Washington media need not worry that their advice will be taken. The mental grooves here are worn too deep, and self-importance serves to set them in concrete. The only cause for hope is that time still passes. In journalism, as in physics, bad ideas generally don't concede; they succumb to a new generation. As the current Washington guard inches towards its golden years, there is at least a possibility that something new will push through the concrete. We might be wary of high tech "cures" for aging. Do we really want another 200 years of John MacLaughlin and George Will?

So for the record, as it were, here are nine suggestions the media will ignore.

1. Tell the Story, Not the Script

The script is what the players want you to tell. The story is what happened. The Washington media, in their dogged obedience, almost always follow the first.

Take a congressional hearing. The next day's story in The Washington Post will be a Big-Shot-Says story, guaranteed. Expert said "Blah" at the hearing. Colonel said "Boo." That's the script.

The story is why the committee held a hearing on this subject in the first place. Who chose the witness list? Who was left out? Who was relegated to the final time slots when reporters have packed up their notebooks and the klieg lights have gone off? Which committee members showed up, and why? (At a congressional hearing, what doesn't get said often is more important than what does.)

2. Mention the Money

Money is the single biggest factor here, the polar field through which most issues must pass. Yet the media rarely mention it. Money ends up in a cognitive ghetto, disconnected from the daily flow of events, discussed only in a few isolated stories about political contributions. Out of sight, out of mind. The implicit message: "It matters but it really doesn't."

Why not note the fact of money routinely? Why not say, in every story, something like this: "Senator Slick, who received $500,000 from the oil industry last year, today called for oil drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge." This is not cynicism; it is reality, which the Washington media are supposed to report. Sunlight does not sanitize by itself. Repetition is necessary.

3. Stop Those Dumb Quotes

The news pages in Washington have become increasingly like the sports pages in that they are full of inane and say-nothing quotes. The locker room classics--e.g, "We didn't show enough intensity out there tonight"--have their counterparts in ritualistic quotes from the Washington players. Recently, in a story on the Senate Judiciary Committee's vote to approve John Ashcroft as attorney general, The New York Times quotes President Bush as saying, "I just hope there are no further delays." And all this time I thought the president wanted more delay.

Such quotes pad out stories and produce the vacant, numbed-out quality that pervades the Washington beat. Reporters need to set a higher bar. If they quoted only statements that are genuinely insightful or revealing, the news would be better--and Washington would be too.

4. Authority Is Not Reality

The proliferation of ritual and say-nothing quotes is a symptom of something more basic in Washington reporting--authority journalism. The reporter does not seek to find out what is, but what some big shot says. One might call it the Bob Woodward Syndrome.

Authority journalism has spawned the Big-Shot-Says story, in which the mere opening of the mouth becomes front page news. It also has spawned the ritual of the dueling authorities, in which the reporter quotes one, quotes another on the opposite side, and then calls it a day with no effort to determine the merits of the respective arguments.

The question is not what authorities say. Authorities can be wrong. They can work from outdated assumptions and ignore inconvenient questions. Economics in particular serves as a tendentious set of assumptions disguised as objective science. As authorities, economists are about as dependable as psychologists--you can find one who will say just about anything. That is one reason reporters rely on them so much.

Reporters need to get past the "economist says" mode. Among other things this would help free them from the sneering contempt for new ideas which has become a leading trait of the big-shot media. New thinking rarely comes from experts.

And a note to the business page reporters. Those "Wall Street analysts" you rely on so much are not dispassionate observers. They work for investment houses that have positions in stocks and bonds. They spin the economy the way the flacks for the Republican and Democratic leaderships spin Congress. So please stop quoting them as authorities. They are players.

5. Vet that Study

A form of authority journalism that is particularly sneaky and insidious is the "study." Practically every day brings a "Study Says Š " headline, and often several. Study says efforts to combat global warming will ruin the economy. Study says poverty is on the increase, and on and on.

Such studies are reported as papal authority. Expertise has spoken. Yet expertise is not infallible, and often it is on the take. I once asked a technician at the Congressional Budget Office what he did on the job. "I tinker with assumptions until the boss gets the answer he wants," he said. The study-meisters at most Washington trade groups and opinion tanks would admit the same, if honest. You think these groups are going to release a study that goes against their own position?

Every "Study SaysŠ" story should examine the key data and assumptions. If the study does not lay these out clearly then it does not deserve to be reported. The assumptions are not always esoteric. Media reports of a study of a welfare-to-work program in Minnesota, which heralded this program as a glowing success, neglected to mention that the program had been changed drastically since the study was done. By the same token, an econometric model that assumes, say, full employment, becomes suspect from the word go.

There is no reason that major media outlets such as The Washington Post or The New York Times can't have professionals on call to dissect studies before the paper holds them forth as the latest voices of authority and expertise.

6. Yesterday Matters

The U.S. media have the attention span of seven-year-olds. If something was said or done more than 48 hours ago, it ceases to exist. One result is a near total lack of accountability. Big shots and experts here can be wrong repeatedly and get away with it because no one ever asks them to explain.

This shouldn't be such a problem. All it takes is access to Nexis or a decent search engine. Back in 1993, in the Senate debate over the first Clinton budget, Phil Gramm of Texas warned that "people will pay more taxes, the economy will create fewer jobs, government will spend more money, and the American people will be worse off."

Well, Phil, what happened? Big shots here mouth off like that every day. Why don't reporters ever go back and ask them to explain why they were wrong? And in the case of experts, why do reporters keep quoting them no matter how many times they are wrong?

Then, too, history is more than simple accountability. It also provides context for the day's events. The point may seem trite. Yet the news from Washington each day typically reads as though the nation's capital materialized out of the swamp at 6:00 a.m. the day before. How about letting the political "observers"--the Larry Sabatos and Marshall Wittmans et al.--rest their vocal chords once in a while and call a historian for comment instead?

History is especially important with regards to the economy, since economic history tends to be more instructive than the theory. So call historians instead of economists on occasion, too.

7. Observe the Ordinary

The prestige media resemble more and more the local 11 o'clock news. They are driven by conflict and scandal--the Washington equivalents of the 50-car-pile-up story. The overseas news is this way chronically. A riot in Bangladesh appears suddenly out of nowhere, and then disappears until there's more "unrest." In Washington, the Department of Transportation plops onto center stage in the commotion over Firestone tires. Then it disappears until there is more scandal or gore.

If we don't have some sense of the ordinary, we cannot possibly grasp the occasional commotion and "unrest." Reporters might try writing about Washington as though they were foreign visitors. Every culture--even that of the bureaucracy--can be interesting if you view it through fresh and curious eyes.

8. Legality Is the Problem

Washington reporters seem to believe that an abuse isn't worthy of telling unless it is technically illegal. Thus the Clinton campaign scandals. No one explained why this money was worse than the other campaign money that pours into the political maw. It was just done in a bumptious manner that violated the law. (Also it involved recent immigrants instead of smooth WASP lawyers.)

The trouble with that standard is that the maw writes the law. Congress makes the campaign finance rules--and its own ethics rules--to ban the things it doesn't care about and to keep legal the things it wants. A congressional staffer can't take $50 from a newspaper for writing an op-ed. Yet a member of Congress can take thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the executives of the corporation that owns that same newspaper.

This is not a defense of Clinton. His promiscuity as a fundraiser matched other areas of his life. Still, the worst abuses in Washington generally are legal. There's a difference between an act of corruption and a prosecutable offense. (While we're on the subject, is it really worse to put up a contributor in the Lincoln Bedroom than it is to, say, open up the Alaska Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling for the benefit of that contributor? Just possibly, with the Lincoln bedroom as a sop, the taxpayers were getting a break.)

9. Words Matter

Reporters first and foremost are keepers of language. They need to call things what they are, not what some ax-grinder calls them. Take the term "special interest." Somehow reporters have swallowed the ideological pap that defines a "special interest" as someone who argues for the general interest--who wants to keep the air clean enough to breathe, for example. By that Orwellian reasoning, the corporations that pollute the air for monetary gain become a magnanimous public interest.

There's an unsavory history on this particular point. In 1936, Avery Brundage, then head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, dismissed demands to boycott the Olympics in Hitler's Munich on the grounds that these were the work of the "Jewish special interest." He then proceeded to permit the exclusion of two Jewish sprinters from the 440-meter relay team--in the public interest, no doubt.

Or take the term "conservative." If reporters went back to the origins of the modern conservative tradition--to Edmund Burke, de Tocqueville et al.--they would encounter some surprises. They would find that a Ralph Nader, with his suspicions of material progress, his alertness to the destructive tendencies of human nature, his desire to protect against the leveling juggernaut of the global economy, is a conservative in temperament. Ditto most environmentalists.

By the same token, many "conservatives" have a euphoric faith in material progress and in the ability of human ingenuity to solve all problems that is a hallmark of the liberal tradition. Market utopians such as George Gilder and Jack Kemp are prominent examples.

A little more care regarding words would convey to readers that reporters are actually alive to the world and are not mentally embalmed in convention and cliché. This would be no small step

Jon Rowe is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly


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