First of all, I want to congratulate Michael Hastings for the amazing job he did on the McChrystal piece. Not only was it a coup for our magazine, but it’s a reminder of what journalists are supposed to be doing. For quite a long time political journalism, particularly in Washington, has been reduced to an access-trading game, where reporters are rewarded for favorable coverage of those in the know with more time and availability.
This symbiotic dynamic affects not just individual reporters but whole publications and news channels; it’s a huge reason why reporters have in general resisted challenging political authorities. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets not only himself but his whole paper shut out of the access game. Since many recent politicians have made good on this implied threat (George Bush’s shut-out of the Washington Post‘s White House reporters is a classic example), what we get is coverage that across the board fails to ask hard questions and in general treats leaders with a reverence they don’t always deserve.
Or we get the other thing: partisan coverage in which the right-wing guys hammer the Democrats and the lefties hammer the Bushes and the Cheneys. That’s a sort of Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact approach to the access question. You agree to forswear attacks on your own team, then you can get all the access you want from the guys in your locker room. A lot of outlets make this choice and that’s why we get the impression that news coverage is negative, because there is in fact a lot of screaming and finger-pointing on the airwaves — but mostly that’s partisan entertainment, not a healthy free press challenging authority.
The media business is so used to associating the whole idea of challenging or negative reporting with partisanship that even the coverage of our role in the McChrystal thing is being pitched to audiences as a kind of extreme version of the usual crap — that what Rolling Stone is doing is “attacking Obama from the left.” It’s almost like it’s not considered possible anymore for tough reporting to exist without some kind of partisan angle, which is sad, because just a generation ago an almost completely apolitical iconoclasm was the expected ideological orientation of the investigative journalist.
A third thing we get these days is outright prostitution, and unfortunately I can’t even tell all the stories I’ve heard about the kinds of things that go on in our business. I will say that in the world of business journalism in particular there are prominent news organizations that will openly promise favorable coverage in exchange for access to major business figures. This behavior is common enough that it’s not at all a surprise that the major business networks missed the signs leading to the financial crash; they were too busy lobbing softballs to bank CEOs as part of pre-arranged interview deals.
I’m not trying to be too obvious in jerking off Rolling Stone here, but I do think we’d all be better off if news organizations stopped choosing teams and worrying about access and started doing what Hastings did, which is risk the shut-out. It’s hard to write something that you know is going to put you straight into Siberia with your sources five minutes after the piece comes out. I certainly don’t do it very often. Most reporters don’t. But if we all did this more often, what we’d find in the end is that politicians would come calling and offering access anyway. In the end, they really do need us as much as we need them. The more the press learns that it has power of its own, over and above what politicians and business leaders feed them, the better off we’ll all be.