A Short Course in Journalism

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Journalism — which is supposed to involve accurate and perceptive reporting — is one of the keystones of a successful democracy. People who don’t know what’s really going on can’t make informed voting decisions, let alone tell their elected representatives how they want to be represented.

I could make the argument that if our nation, especially its elected senators and representatives, had known what was really going on in the runup to the US invasion of Iraq, that invasion would not have taken place. The weapons-of-mass-destruction argument, claims that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack on the World Trade Center — these lies could not have stood up if the national press corps had stood up to their information sources and asked the smart questions.

Now it begins to seem that the global financial meltdown could have been avoided if the financial press had done the same.

This is not to say that the situation we find ourselves in is the fault of the news media. The situation was caused by greed and delusion on the part of a highly privileged gang of money managers, and by inattention and indifference on the part of those in government who were hired to oversee them. But a few astute reporters could have made all the difference in the outcome by providing the information leading to a public demand that legislators and government officials put the brakes on the mortgaging activities that led to the economic downfall.

Ed (my husband) and I are kitchen-garden farmers, not sophisticated financial commentators. But in 2007 when we first heard about subprime mortgages we looked at each other, one of us (we can’t remember who) said, “This is a house of cards,” and the other agreed. We talked about what would happen when the house fell down. If we could see it, why couldn’t the mavens on the financial networks like CNBC and Bloomberg?

The reason can be summed up in one little word: access. Reporters have become too dependent on their circle of highly-placed informants, who will stop returning their calls if the reporters issue stories critical of the informants’ organizations or activities. It’s equally true of people who cover politicians. The easy way to get stories is to talk with the people behind the news. If they won’t talk with you, then you can’t quote them. If you can’t quote them and you have to file a story, then you have to do some real work.

It’s called research. That means looking stuff up.  I can’t tell you how much easier the Internet makes this than it was when I started reporting, 33 years ago. Then you had to touch actual pieces of paper, which meant getting out of your office and going places. Now you can find almost anything you want sitting on the beach with a laptop on your thighs, if you have adequate online skills and the will to find out. The research won’t tell you what the bigwigs would tell you.  It will do something much more valuable: it will point to the questions you should ask the biggies. And if you leave a message on someone’s BlackBerry asking (as an elementary example) why they’re writing no-down-payment mortgages for people earning McDonald’s-type wages, and saying you’re going to write about it whether they call you back or not, you’ll get a call back in no time flat.

Reporters have forgotten how to ask the questions that matter.  Of course there are a few exceptions, but they’re rarely working at the top levels of journalism. Instead, reporters eager for access let their sources state their opinions and don’t bother asking followup questions.

For example, this morning NPR’s John Ytstie let presidential financial adviser Larry Summers explain that AIG couldn’t refuse to use government bailout money to pay managers bonuses as high as $6.5 million because the company had signed contracts with the managers before the government bailed them out. You can’t legally tear up those contracts, Summers said. Ytstie’s next question should have been, “Why could the government force the automakers to renegotiate contracts with its employees, if they can’t force an insurance company to do the same?” If Ytstie asked the question, he didn’t report the answer, as he should have done.

A few minutes later, NPR reporter Jim Zaroli quoted JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Diamond saying that the government shouldn’t limit the amount paid to its executives because that would put US banks at a disadvantage in relation to foreign banks.  Zaroli should have followed up with a sentence comparing the way US bank executives are paid with their counterparts in Europe. He didn’t. Maybe European execs are paid more than US executives, but I doubt it, just as I doubt American bankers would pack up and move to Europe if their outrageous salaries and bonuses were curtailed during this financial emergency. The point is, Zaroli could have found out and told us, and he didn’t.

What sparked this diatribe is a spectacular example of journalistic performance by a non-journalist, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Last week he confronted CNBC’s Jim Cramer and asked him why he didn’t tell the truth about the steps leading up to the crisis. Stewart is a comedian, but he wasn’t a bit funny during his interview with Cramer, who finally admitted he is an entertainer, not a purveyor of financial information — although his show is about telling people what’s going on in the stock market and even what stocks are hot.

If you have the bandwidth and about 15 minutes’ time, the three-part Stewart-Cramer interview is worth watching. It’s front and center on the show’s home page.

My purpose in telling you all this is to inspire you to become a more demanding recipient of mass media news. Reporters are supposed to represent you when they’re gathering news, to ask the questions you’d ask if you were present, find out the things you should know that you don’t have enough information to know you should know, to report the answers, and to do the work necessary to be able to tell you if those answers were accurate.

If you hear a news report that leaves you with questions, you can contact the news outlet and ask those questions.  It’s not hard to find whom to call or send e-mail to. Every station has its web site, and the web site has a “Contact Us” button.  If enough of us do that, reporters will start reporting instead of echoing what they’re told, and our nation and democracy itself will be the better off for it.

An anecdotal postscript: Professionals in the McGovern presidential primary campaign when the Watergate break-in was discovered tried mightily to interest the reporters who called on them seeking background for their stories. None of us could get the newsmen (they were always men) we dealt with to pay attention. The story didn’t attract media attention until after Richard Nixon was re-elected. Ultimately, his role in the break-in and subsequent coverup forced his resignation.

One reporter willing to risk access and ask the necessary questions could have spared the country the upheaval that this sorry episode caused.

That experience ushered in an era of vigorous investigative reporting. I entered journalism during that era, and Watergate’s lessons have never left me. Most reporters working today aren’t old enough to remember and have no sense of their own responsibility to the public, let alone their potential power to protect our democratic principles.

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One Response to “A Short Course in Journalism”

  1. Thanks for the tip!

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