Politics & Government

News media falling short in watchdog role, critics say

By Matt Stearns

McClatchy Newspapers


WASHINGTON - It was a big week for accountability in Washington.

Military leaders had to explain to Congress how they let war veterans fester in moldy, roach-infested buildings at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was convicted on perjury and obstruction charges.

But there's another Washington institution that many say needs an accountability moment: the news media.

In both events, experts say, the country would have been better served if big news outlets had taken a more aggressive watchdog attitude. The Libby case especially illustrates that too many elite members of the media are more interested in cultivating Washington power brokers than in maintaining skeptical, independent and arms-length relationships with them, challenging their assertions and holding them to account for their failings.

The consequences can be enormous: The country went to war in Iraq on false or exaggerated evidence trumpeted by anonymous sources through compliant media. And U.S. forces have been at war since 2001, but only in 2007 did the Walter Reed abuses come to light, as the elite media ignored earlier reports from smaller outlets, such as the online magazine Salon, rather than credit and build on them.

"Unfortunately, the mainstream media was not paying attention," Celia Viggo Wexler, the vice president of the civic-reform group Common Cause, wrote in an opinion article this week.

During the Libby trial, reporters for The New York Times, NBC News and other major news outlets testified about their willingness to grant Libby anonymity in exchange for listening as he spun stories intended to undermine the credibility of a Bush administration critic. To many Americans, it seemed to confirm that in Washington, big media names are sometimes partners in power with the officials they're supposed to be holding accountable.

"You saw in the Libby trial an awful lot that, for a lot of people, probably looked suspect or messy," said Stephen Hess, a veteran student of press-government relations at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington research center. "This goes on all over town. The only difference is in this case the administration got a little sloppy, and the person they aimed their cannons at was protected by an act of Congress." That would be Valerie Plame, a former undercover CIA officer whose husband, Joseph Wilson, was the critic Libby tried to undermine.

"These cozy relationships often involve some of the best reporters or best media outlets," said Ellen Shearer, a dean at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "The question becomes not are they being used so much as what are the stories they're not writing because they're not stories that circle cares about. ... The cozy relationships can put blinders on."

Limiting anonymous sources would help increase the media's accountability and public trust, said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan group that monitors media performance. In the Libby case, reporters granted anonymity not to someone blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, but to a powerful official who sought to discredit a whistleblower.

"Journalists need to be less passive in the way confidentiality is handed out," Rosenstiel said. "They need to make distinctions between coaxing a vulnerable and reluctant whistleblower versus a powerful political figure delivering a message."

As for conditions at military hospitals, many of the horrors The Washington Post revealed last month have existed for years; Salon reported many of them as long ago as 2005.

Mark Benjamin, who broke Salon's military hospital stories, started writing about the issue in 2003 for UPI, a struggling wire service. He said he thought the country was more willing to read negative stories about the war now and reporters were more willing to write them.

But the way Washington news media work is also a factor.

Even in the Internet age, two newspapers - The New York Times and The Washington Post - play a unique role in setting the nation's agenda.

TV network news shows tend to follow their lead. So do newspaper editors across the country. Partly that reflects the strength of their organizations, but even more it reflects their singular audiences. Everyone in power in Washington reads The Post and The Times and reacts to what they report. That's why powerful political figures try to cultivate - or co-opt - their reporters.

"It takes the big print outlets to get the attention of the TV news shows," said Wexler of Common Cause. "Then it explodes."

Benjamin agreed that The Post's stories got noticed because "they're The Washington Post. ... When they do it, people pay attention."

While The Post now gets credit for exposing the problems, critics lament that the media didn't investigate sooner. In part Wexler blames the big media's declining financial fortunes, which have forced many to cut staffs and shift resources to "feel-good" stories or "news you can use."

"There is little incentive for reporters to go the extra mile and find good stories, stories they might not be able to report because they take too much time or they may rock too many boats, or are `too depressing' for the demographic the news outlet is seeking to court," Wexler wrote.

Then there's that other criticism: Perhaps if more of the nation's elite journalists were less devoted to cultivating the powerful and more interested in exposing their failings, the public would be better served.


To read more online about the news media's role in the Libby scandal, go to http://pewresearch.org/pubs/423/a-verdict-on-the-medias-verdict-on-the-libby-trial


© 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.