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Remarks From Paul StarobinBy Paul Starobin
April 30, 1997
Uh Oh--We seem to be agreeing on lots of stuff. One thing that puzzles me: Ed and Sarah say that today's top reporters are afraid of their bosses, more so than is usually the case. I haven't really picked up on that. How so? Is this a function of the corporatization of the media, of he financial troubles that so many print outlets are experiencing, or what? ...And can you give me specific examples of journalistic timidity? I don't really see it. I opened up my Wall Street Journal today to find a devastating lead piece by Jackie Calmes that shot to pieces Trent Lott's contention that average-earning Americans in his hometown are clamoring for an estate-tax roll back. I'll say it again: The watchdog instinct of the American media is alive and well--the problem (and I didn't see it all in the Journal piece) is when it spills over to reflexive, sourpuss cynicism.
I agree with Sarah that the Washington press corps generally does a poor job of covering unglamorous federal agencies that handle big pots of money. Yes, basic explanations of how agencies and programs work are often lacking. But that's one reason to have a discussion about how the press works or doesn't work--and I actually think there are quite a number of people interested in learning how the media works. When I go back home, I always get lots of questions. And because we're big and powerful, we should be as transparent as possible. It's not that we need to worry about being liked--it's that scrutiny of the scrutinizers is healthy.
And I agree with Ed that the "junk virus" in the media seems to be spreading. But (to wring my hands for a moment or two) what can be done about it? Ultimately the media is a reflection of the culture it covers. In an Info-tainment society, we get Info-tainment media. Sigh.
"I vote more Democratic because I'm more in tune with their views, I believe in helping people," Sarah says. Hmm. So the Republicans are all meanies? As I said in my intro statement, I worry about a growing cultural/ideological gap between the Washington journalism crew and the rest of the country. Why? Because the press can't do a good job of acting as the eyes and ears of the public if it is out of touch with the public's thinking. This is also why I think it's a good idea to rotate journalists in and out of Washington. You need to balance expertise with freshness of vision.
I'm willing to agree, in abstract, that corporatization of the media, concentration of ownership, etc. Is worrisome--we don't want everyone working for Mickey Mouse. But can you give me some specific examples of how coverage has been shaped by these trends?