former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Plagiarism of the Spirit: Reporters are Stuck in the DC Bubble

In Blog on June 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

Recently, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote a lengthy story on DC couples who work in media and politics.  The story revealed one of this city’s not-so-well-kept secrets: In this town, the media literally are in bed with the government.  Farhi’s piece outed some of those government-media duos – NPR’s Ari Shapiro is the spouse of Michael Gottlieb, on the staff of the White House Counsel.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is married to ABC News’s Claire Shipman.  Washington Post reporter Sari Horowitz is the wife of Health and Human Services General Counsel William B. Schultz. Vice President Biden’s communications director Shailagh Murray is married to Wall Street Journal political reporter Neil King.

Farhi himself also coyly confesses, without naming names or specifying the nature of the relationship, that he sometimes writes about CBS news and is related to an employee at the network.

Farhi’s critique focuses on how well these couples manage conflicts of interest.  But that’s not really the problem.  Reporters by and large do pretty well avoiding favoritism covering the news. They adjust assignments, and are pretty scrupulous about not covering any issue on which their loved ones have direct responsibility.

The problem goes much deeper.  It is the inbred Washington culture where big media and big government mingle in a seamless minuet that creates a plagiarism of the spirit. No, I don’t mean the plagiarism that happens when one reporter literally copies the words and opinions of others.  This appropriation is much larger and more fundamental.  The journalists who live and work together in the tight little cocoon of DC politics are seeing the world in the same way, chasing down the same fragments of news, and no one is challenging anybody’s assumptions.

Think of it.  The elite who comprise the Washington press corps — those reporters for major media outlets who cover the White House, the federal government and Congress and who are regular contributors to the weekly news shows — by and large are well paid and comfortable.  High-profile reporters send their kids to the same private schools that also are attended by the children of senior government officials. They run into each other at the same parties.  They live in the same neighborhoods.  They dine at the same restaurants.

None of this is wrong.  But it is severely limiting.  Journalists used to be working class stiffs, outsiders whose press passes would only get them pressed against the window of power, not inside the halls.  They had empathy for the “little guy” because they emerged from the same class.  Journalism was one of the few jobs around that required no formal college degree. To those who lacked the right pedigree or social skills, journalism rewarded hard work and cleverness with decent-paying jobs that were enjoyable and stimulating.

As much as journalism might be in financial distress nationwide, the DC press corps still contains many reporters who’ve never taken a Greyhound bus or entered a Walmart.  They don’t understand what it means to earn only the minimum wage.

After Solange DeSantis, one of the journalists I profile in my book, spent 18 months working at a GM auto plant and then wrote a book about it, her journalism colleagues couldn’t really grasp what it had been like.  Their reaction, she says, was “What a cool thing you’ve done!  Like I’d gone on a field trip or something.”

DC reporters are often as insulated from the real world as the seemingly endless supply of Harvard lawyers who traipse through the White House and the Executive Office Building. They all read the same books, newspapers and magazines, rely on the same experts. The views they hold are not carbon copies, but they complement each other like a well orchestrated choir, everyone singing from the same hymnal. With everyone so in sync, an original thought has as much chance of survival as a sprig of holly in a desert.

I’m certainly not the first person to notice this.  In the mid-1990s, James Fallows, now national correspondent for The Atlantic, critiqued his fellow journalists in his book, Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, making the case the elite national reporters had lost touch with average Americans, and were failing to serve the public in a way that served democracy.

This commonality of class and breeding often surfaces in the capital’s rituals. Last week when the during a White House press briefing,  White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes, brother of CBS News division president David Rhodes, withstood the a volley of questions from reporters.  It felt like a game of ping pong, with reporters facing a single opponent across the table.  Reporters were building on each other’s queries to try to get Rhodes to give them more details about the nature and timing of US military aid to Syria. They stopped when they got their sound bite: no more informational than the noncommittal phrases Rhodes offered for a large chunk of the briefing, but something they could work with. It’s not that reporters should not be trying to find out more details, it’s just that this routine exercise was clearly not going to bear fruit.

The reason the limitations of the DC press corps seem so acute is that dozens of regional reporters who used to cover the capital have lost their jobs. Regional reporters had a more direct connection to their audience. They were supposed to let their readers know how national policies affected them, and to keep track of their senators and congressional delegations.

By definition, they had to add value to what the big dailies and networks covered. That often resulted in very solid reporting. Upstate New York retains a few of these valuable journalists.  Buffalo News bureau chief Jerry Zremski did an excellent job following up on a 2009 commuter plane crash in Buffalo, and the lack of government oversight that contributed to the loss of 50 lives. Zremski has doggedly pursued that story for four years, following up on the Federal Aviation Administration’s continued failure to implement all the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Regional reporters rarely appear on TV, and generally don’t command the high salaries of the elite DC press corps.  But they often are the first to expose a corrupt member of Congress, or write incisive stories about federal agencies.

It is unfortunate that their ranks have thinned as DC’s elite reporters continue to share canapés and gossip in the DC bubble.

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