Tilting at Windmills

November/ December 2013 Fair, balanced, and untrue … A Barry bad legacy … Glamorizing the glamour industry

By Charles Peters

Mark Leibovich is right that there is something wrong with the media’s constant emphasis on the political effect of any action by the president or Congress. But he doesn’t talk about what the media misses: namely, that it fails to find out what is happening in the bureaucracy—at the action points of government. The bureaucracy, after all, implements the programs advocated by the president and passed by Congress. On the Gulf oil spill for example, Leibovich brilliantly describes how This Town’s sellouts covered up BP’s negligence after the disaster. But he doesn’t discuss the failure by the media to find out whether the Minerals Management Service (MMS) was properly monitoring the risky oil drilling that was taking place in the Gulf.

Prevention is the best medicine

Attention is ordinarily paid to prevention only after a disaster has occurred. For example, after the Navy Yard killings, Washington Post reporters Tom Hamburger and Zachary A. Goldfarb, along with Jia Lynn Yang, did a brilliant job of interviewing the employees of USIS, the private contractor that failed to identify the danger posed by shooter Aaron Alexis. As we mentioned in our last issue, USIS similarly failed in the case of Edward Snowden. “There was this intense pressure to do more and faster,” said one USIS employees to the Post. “When you’re giving me a week to interview 50 people, that’s impossible,” said another. Still another adds, “It’s very: ‘Here’s a sheet of questions, ask the questions, hurry and get the answers, submit them and move forward. There’s just not a lot of paying attention to potential red flags and that sort of thing.” Mark Riley, a former Army officer who worked as a private security clearance lawyer, told the Post, “They don’t ask the right follow-up questions.… The bottom line is the buck, rather than national security.”

Consider how the Navy Yard killings might have been avoided if this reporting had been done a year or two earlier and the public spotlight had been cast on the problem so there would have been a chance to correct it. After the shootings, the Post put this story on the front page, as did the Times a few days later. That is why we need reporting that aims to prevent disasters before they occur.

Was there anything to alert the media that they should have looked at how security investigations were being conducted?

The answer is yes. It was known that legislation passed in 2004 required the government to complete security investigations much faster than the up to a year some of them had been taking. The danger, of course, was that the new goal would cause the investigations to be carelessly conducted. It was also well known that drilling was being conducted at deeper depths in the Gulf than had been tried before, and by the time of the second Bush administration the MMS had become notorious for its ineptitude and corruption. It would have been prudent for the media to take a careful look at how the hazardous drilling was being done and how the MMS was monitoring it.

Private v. the public interest

By the way, here is a possible explanation of how profit became the principal focus at USIS. The company got its start when the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government people were concealing the unreality of some of their claimed downsizing of government by contracting out government functions. When USIS was created, it was wholly owned by former Office of Personnel Management (OPM) workers, but it has subsequently been acquired by a private equity firm. The former OPM employees might have been at least partially motivated to serve the public interest, but doesn’t it seem more likely that it isn’t the motivation of the new owner?

A Barry bad legacy

The people of the District of Columbia should hang their heads in shame over the city government they continue to elect. They not only chose the infamous Marion Barry to be their mayor for three terms, the voters of Ward 8 subsequently endowed him with a lifetime chair on the city council by reelecting him time and again—this despite repeated evidence of his ethical lapses, ranging from failing to pay his taxes to taking bribes, not to mention smoking crack. The city council had a chance to remove Barry recently because he had just been caught red-handed accepting a cash bribe. Though they deprived him of a committee chairmanship, they allowed him to remain on the council, perhaps because they are so ethically challenged themselves. In just the last year, three members of the city council have admitted to serious violations of the law. In the words of the Post’s Colbert I. King, upon whose outraged reporting of the city government I rely, Harry Thomas Jr. “pleaded guilty to lining his pockets with $350,000 of taxpayer money meant to benefit children; former council chairman Kwame Brown … pleaded guilty to a felony bank fraud charge; and former council member Michael A. Brown … admitted embarking on an illegal bribery scheme.” King puts “[t]he amount of money embezzled, accepted in bribes, defrauded or spent on illegal campaign contributions” by city employees or their confederates since June of this year at $19 million.

Selling but not selling out

Don Graham, the former Washington Post publisher, is more conservative than I am, but he is among the most conscientious men I have ever known. He is one of a handful of Ivy League graduates—Harvard Class of 1966, to be precise—to serve in Vietnam. When he came home, he joined the District of Columbia police force, and learned what it was like to be a cop on a regular beat in his hometown. Again, an experience rare among our educated elite. Perhaps these experiences have contributed to the personal concern he has demonstrated for the people working for him at every level of the organization from top to bottom. I remember in particular his kindness and practical help for my friend Marjorie Williams during her battle with cancer. That my feelings are shared by the Post staff was demonstrated by the outpouring of the laudatory comments from them when he was no longer their boss. I am certain that he would not have sold the Post had he not been convinced that it was in the best interest of the newspaper.

Another publisher I admire is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., for all he has done to keep the New York Times alive. I especially remember once when the paper was in a precarious fiscal situation and Arthur was compelled to borrow $250 million at a painful 14 percent from a Mexican billionaire to keep the Times afloat. It reminded me of similar frightening experiences of my own when I was responsible for keeping the Washington Monthly going. The Monthly is tiny compared to the Times, but it made me understand how hard the challenges were that Arthur faced. In his case, success led to the New York Times standing alone as the most outstanding paper in the country.

Glamorizing the glamor industry

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.

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