Political Exchange



Political Reporting


Read all the remarks from:
Edwin Diamond
  • Round One
  • Round Two
  • Round Three
  • Round Four Questions and Answers
  • Round Five

    Sarah McClendon

  • Round One
  • Round Two
  • Round Three
  • Round Four Questions and Answers
  • Round Five

    Paul Starobin

  • Round One
  • Round Two
  • Round Three
  • Round Four Questions and Answers
  • Round Five


  • Remarks From Edwin Diamond

    By Edwin Diamond
    April 29, 1997

    Yes, but...I find myself in an unusual position for a critic who belongs to a party of one: I agree with much said by McClendon and Starobin.

    Paul is right to remind us that political journalism has a robust, raucous, irreverent--and, to my mind, glorious--tradition. We admire undercover reporters like Nellie Bly (who was a whole-body "hidden camera" 100 years before ABC's Prime Time Live). In our classes we assign the writings of muckrakers Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell; we show Jacob Reis' photos and Thomas Nast's cartoons; we cite Ida Wells Barnett's chilling accounts of lynchings in 19th Century America. We assign Woodward and Bernstein, though for 20somethings Watergate is ancient history, as remote to them as Barnett's post-Civil War America.

    That was then, now is now. Sarah is on target when she describes today's Washington reporters as timid, scared of their bosses and--the real cruncher--intimidated by the judgments of their peers. She's also on to something with her suggestion that the current Beat The Press mania has distinct ideological roots in the politics of the last two decades. (Note to myself: story idea--follow the foundation money behind this campaign to discredit reporting and reporters).

    Paul and Sarah help move the discussion away from whether or not we're liked, to how good a job do we do, and why we do what we do. I don't think they go far enough.

    The First Amendment, and our own newsroom values, say only that we should be free, that we should follow facts and hunches wherever they lead us. These core values don't require us to be liked, help little old ladies cross the street, be snappy dressers or good dinner table partners. It's the song, not the singer, that counts.

    So if we're going to engage in that chin tugger, what's wrong with political journalism, let's shift away from what polls say the public thinks to how we're doing now and--crucially-- what forces are working against good journalism.

    On the way we do our job, I give us a B-plus. In my first post, I contrasted the all-male, all-white newsroom of the 1950s to its modern counterpart, a place that "looks more like America today." Also, we're better trained and educated (my father, a Chicago sportswriter in the 1930s, went to work as a copy boy after the eighth grade), better paid and, on the whole, less corrupt than we were when I started. Our college degrees may mean only that we can't be snowed with statistics and officialese. Computer -literate, we crunch our own numbers, we access data bases: these are not a small things.

    The real obstacles to continued good work come from, among other factors:

    • Corporatization--Sarah touched on this. Will we all wind up working for Murdoch or Disney? And is what's good for Mickey Mouse necessarily good for the media outlets he owns?

    • Junk culture--"Media" today embraces both serious--or at least midbrow --journalism and the low tabloid press. Existing side by side--Hard Copy comes after Dan Rather on my local CBS station--when one sneezes the other catches cold. And so the junk virus spreads (our book White House To Your House: Media And Politics In Virtual America explores this process)

    • A-literacy--Americans know how to read and think, most of us, anyway. But will we continue to use these talents? Or lapse further into couch-computer potatoism?

    • Ideological pressures--The attempt to beat down the press, to turn the few remaining instincts of watchdog journalism into safe lapdog behavior, is far along. When will we start talking about this, maybe even investigate it?