While I don’t often agree with the left leaning Bill Moyers, every now and then he says something that makes pretty good sense. Too bad most progressives, as they like to call themselves, don’t get it. As is the case with this speech that was delivered at a Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers of America dinner on May 19, 2004.
Freedom and freedom of the press were birth twins of the revolution. They grew up together, and neither has fared well without the other. At times, journalism has risen to great occasions and even made other freedoms possible. From editors who went defiantly to prison after being charged under the sedition act for circulating opinions that questioned the motives of Congress, or ‘criminating’ (whatever that meant) the president, to the willingness of Arthur Sulzberger and Katherine Graham to risk criminal prosecution under espionage laws if they printed the Pentagon Papers; from Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair taking on the shame of the cities, the crimes of the trusts, and the treason of the senate, to Walter Cronkite devoting an entire broadcast to Watergate; from Seymour Hersh reporting on torture to 60 Minutes II broadcasting the horror of Abu Ghraib, the greatest moments in journalism have come not when journalists made common cause with power, but when they stood fearlessly independent of it.
How is it an old press secretary can speak in awe of a press that once held his own feet to the fire? Two reasons. I grew up in the Deep South. For a long time we were in denial about the truth of slavery. The truth-tellers among us were driven from the pulpit, driven from the newsroom, driven from the classroom. It took a ‘terrible swift sword’—a Civil War—to drive home the truth about slavery, and then it took another 100 years of suffocating conformity before the victory of Appomattox was fully realized. Then, I did indeed serve in the Johnson administration, when we circled the wagons and for too long failed to face the facts on the ground in Vietnam. Although it was hard to acknowledge at the time, it was the David Halberstams and the Morley Safers and the Peter Arnetts who were right about reality. I.F Stone, too. I see in my mind’s eye as I speak a smiling I.F. Stone, having just published another of his little four-page weekly exposing the contradictions in the government’s own documents, pausing long enough amidst the thunder of battle to declare: “I have so much fun I ought to be arrested…’
Quite a story we can tell. Quite a tradition we serve.
So, why, when we pause to celebrate it, as we are tonight, why despite plenty of lip service on every ritual occasion to freedom of the press—why are we so uneasy, so uncertain, so anxious for our craft?
Partly it’s because of the secrecy. The secrecy today is so thick as to be all but impenetrable. In earlier times there were padlocks for the presses and jail cells for outspoken editors and writers as our governing bodies tried to squelch journalistic freedom with blunt instruments of the law. Now, the classifier’s ‘top secret’ stamp, used indiscriminately, is as potent a silencer as a writ of arrest. It’s so bad the president and CEO of the Associated Press, Tom Curley, last week called publicly for a media advocacy center to lobby in Washington for an open government. “You don’t need to have your notebook snatched by a policeman,” he said, “to know that keeping an eye on government has lately gotten a lot harder.”
With little public debate congress gives government agencies the right to search your home, office, telephone logs, e-mails, medical records, restaurant—receipts, even banking and credit card information—without your consent or knowledge. The president signs an executive order postponing thousands of declassified documents that are 25 years old or more. He signs another executive order sending hundreds of millions of tax dollars to religious organizations with no obligation to show us where the money’s going or how it’s being used. For the first time in history the vice president is given the power to decide what is classified and what is not. Behind closed doors, key environmental protections are shredded and in the middle of the night, without so much as a single fingerprint left in the margin, an anonymous hand inserts into an omnibus bill a loophole providing billions of dollars in subsidies to powerful clients. Secrecy poisons democracy and there is only one antidote. When a student asked the journalist Richard Reeves to define “real news,” he answered, “It’s the news we need to keep our freedom.”
It’s not just government that’s squeezing out this news. Some of the media giants are doing it themselves. As they consolidate ownership they are shrinking their news holes, isolating public affairs far from prime-time. A study by Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America reports that nearly two-thirds of today’s newspaper markets are monopolies. Take a look at a recent book called Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering, published as part of the project on the state of the American newspaper under the auspices of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the leadership of Gene Roberts, the former managing editor of The New York Times . The report describes “a furious unprecedented blitz of buying, selling, and consolidating of newspapers from the mightiest daily to the humblest weeklies.”
A world where “small hometown dailies are being bought and sold like hog futures, where chains now devour other chains whole, where they are effectively ceding whole regions of the country to one another, further minimizing competition. Where money is pouring into the business from interests with little knowledge and even less concern about the special obligations newspapers have to democracy.”
The authors point to The Daily in Oshkosh, Wis., with a circulation of 23,500, a paper that prided itself on being in hometown hands since the Andrew Johnson administration. But in 1998, it was sold not once but twice within the space of two months. Two years later it was sold again: four owners in less than three years. In New Jersey, the Gannett chain bought the Asbury Park Press , sent in a publisher who slashed 50 people from the staff and cut the space for news, and then was rewarded by being named Gannett’s manager of the year.
You better get used to it, these authors conclude: it won’t be long before America is reduced to half a dozen major print organizations. According to the Non-Partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspapers have 2,200 fewer employees than in 1990. The number of full-time radio news employees dropped by 44 percent between 1994 and 2000. The number of broadcast network correspondents has dropped by one third since the 1980s. And the number of TV network foreign bureaus is down by half. Except for 60 Minutes on CBS, the network prime time newsmagazines “in no way could be said to cover major news of the day.” Furthermore, the report finds that 68 percent of the news on cable news channels was ‘repetitious accounts of previously reported stories without any new information.”
We know what happens when robust journalism bites the dust. The Pew report tells of examples like Cumberland, Md., where the police reporter had so many duties piled upon him he no longer had time to go to the police station for the daily reports. But newspaper management had a cost-saving solution: put a fax machine in the police station and let cops send over the news they thought the paper should have. The report by Pew includes a 1999 survey that showed a massive retreat in coverage of key departments and agencies in Washington, including the Supreme Court and the State Department. At the Social Security Administration, whose activities literally affect every American, only The New York Times was maintaining a full-time reporter. At the Interior Department, which controls five to six hundred million acres of public land and looks after everything from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there were no full-time reporters around.
That’s right here in Washington. Out across the country there is simultaneously a near blackout of local politics by broadcasters. The public interest group Alliance for Better Campaigns studied 45 stations in six cities in one week in October. Out of 7,560 hours of programming analyzed, only 13 were devote to local public affairs—less than one-half of one percent of local programming nationwide.
Meanwhile, as secrecy grows, and media conglomerates put more and more power in fewer and fewer hands, we have witnessed the rise of a new phenomenon—a quasi-official partisan press ideologically linked to an authoritarian administration that is in turn the ally and agent of powerful financial and economic interests that consider transparencies a threat to their hegemony over public opinion. This convergence dominates the marketplace of political ideas in a phenomenon unique in our history. Stretching from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch’s empire to the nattering nabobs of know-nothing radio to a legion of think tanks bought and paid for by corporations circling the honey pots of government, a vast echo chamber resounds with a conformity of opinions, serving a partisan worldview cannot be proven wrong because it admits no evidence to the contrary. When you challenge them with evidence to the contrary—when you try to hold their propaganda to scrutiny—you’re likely to wind up in the modern equivalent of a medieval iron maiden, between the covers, that is, of an Ann Coulter tirade, or wake up in an underground cell at FOX News, force fed leftovers from a Roger Ailes snack, and required for 24 hours a day to stare at photographs of Rupert Murdoch on the walls of the cell while listening to a piped-in Bill O’Reilly singing the Hallelujah Chorus in praise of himself.
So what’s happening here tonight is important. Your recognition of journalism is more than ritual, ceremony or even celebration. You are confirming what journalism can do. I don’t want to claim too much for this craft, but I don’t want to claim too little either. I believe journalism and democracy are deeply linked in whatever chances we Americans have to redress our grievances, retake our politics, and reclaim our commitment to equality and justice.
And one last thing. The character in Tom Stoppard’s play Night And Day summed it up when he said: “people do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse in places where everything is kept in the dark.”