Slipping Through the Cracks

Slipping Through the Cracks 

            We have two wars going at the moment.  We have a defense budget of between $600 and 700 billion, depending on how you count.  We have approximately 1.5 million active-duty service men and women.  No one would dispute that the Pentagon, where all this is centered, is a beat full of important stories.  

            There are many Pentagon-accredited journalists to cover all this activity for domestic consumers of print news.  But according to one published estimate, U.S. newspapers and wire services are fielding only twelve true Pentagon bureaus, fixed locations with full-time staff.  And this number may be generous.  A friend who staffs one of those bureaus says that only three daily newspapers (the usual suspects, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal) are really on-site in consistent and significant numbers.  Lacking such commitment, he believes the others are not significant players. 

            At best, three to twelve-ish bureaus cannot possibly cover it all.  There are 23,000 employees in that building alone.  The question is not whether we are missing stories, but what stories we are missing.  Think military strategy, procurement, the social role of the Armed Forces, Guantanamo detainees. Then think of a hockey goalie tending a mile-wide net.  And that’s just on the Pentagon beat. 

            To give you a larger sense of what’s being missed, consider just one missed tale from another beat, the Bernie Madoff scandal.  This was really two scandals for the price of one.  There was the biggest Ponzi scheme in history (that we know of yet, at least), and the failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission to catch Madoff all the while he was raking in Gargantuan portions of investor money and claiming absurdly winning results.  This story was handed to the Wall Street Journal by Harry Markopolos, not once, but repeatedly.  Markopolos, then portfolio manager for Ramparts Investment Management Company, a Boston investment and hedge fund house, kept tipping off an ace investigative reporter for the Journal, the late John Wilke, giving him what should have been adequate information to begin the investigation.  Reportedly, Markopolos was able to show that what Madoff claimed to be accomplishing was literally impossible.  

            Wilke had two problems.  One was management at the Journal which would never give him the green light to investigate Madoff.  The other: Wilke had his hands full; he was writing about another alleged fraudster, Mario Gabelli, and Congressional earmarks – both worthy stories. So there was a legitimate reason for Wilke not to investigate Madoff.  But for the entire Journal?  

            The Journal, in fairness, was off pursuing the backdated options scandal, reportage which would ultimately win a Pulitzer. Still, the Journal doubtless has the largest fleet of correspondents covering the financial markets of any U.S. newspaper.  If they were stretched too thin to handle this story, which turned out to be a matter of financial life and death for thousands, then who could possibly have had the resources?  Well, we know the answer for that: nobody.  And that wasn’t even the biggest missed story: the then-upcoming mortgage meltdown would come to dwarf it. 

            It wouldn’t be such a problem if anyone could get newspaper-style coverage elsewhere.  But as I pointed out last time, it’s not readily available in today’s media universe. 

            Oddly, this does not exactly mean the death of print journalism.  We know from a February report issued by the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism that the number of press passes issued by the U.S. Senate, for instance, has grown somewhat in recent years.  But the new passes are for media outlets like industry publications, trade journals and foreign news organizations, not domestic newspapers.  For Senate newspaper and wire service accreditations, by contrast, there was a 17% drop just this past year.  

            Print journalism is not disappearing; it’s just being put on retainer (and a short leash) by private interests.  In a piquant example from the report, Bloomberg News went from zero Senate-accredited reporters in the mid-1980s to 112 in 2008.  And if you can afford the $18,000-a-year rental on one of their machines, you can read all of what those 112 journalists write (some is otherwise available to the public).  Or if you want to read the Platts newsletter on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one of 15 Platts products, come up with $2,495 and it’s yours.  Can’t afford it?  Ah, well, your misfortune. 

            That privatization of the journalists working the national beats will have political consequences.  They have disappeared first from the regional newspapers like the Detroit Free Press and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  And we know, for instance, that it was a by-word in the George W. Bush White House that no one cared what appeared on the front page of the New York Times.  It was felt, rightly or wrongly, that the Times had little persuasive force with the voters Bush’s handlers wished to persuade.  Instead, White House concern focused on the front pages of the “regionals.”  The Bush team cultivated the journalists who wrote for those pages. 

            That attitude and strategy would fail today.  If the regionals cover national stories at all, which is increasingly not the case, they will probably be reprinting copy from the New York Times or the AP.  Losing regional reporters covering national stories doesn’t just hurt liberals, then; it also preempts messages right-wingers would like to send.  Democracy requires more voices. 

            Regionals filled another important function: keeping local readers informed of what their particular Washington representatives were doing.  But now, as the Pew report recounts, when Washington correspondent Jonathan Kaplan was laid off from the Portland, Maine paper in 2008, he was writing an in-depth story about the relations between Maine’s two senators, reportedly an interesting tale.  No one will provide that kind of coverage now.  Maine’s voters are permanently the poorer.                                               

            Which is not to say that the regionals are doing a good job of covering their own turf either.  For just one instance among multitudes, legend has it that my local paper, the Baltimore Sun, once employed four full-time reporters literally covering the turf: Maryland’s horse industry and racing.  Now the task is kind of shared between a couple of multitasking reporters who also have other duties.  Horse breeding and racing is in decline, but is still a major Maryland industry.  Is The Sun doing more on this important subject with less? Well, of the last four horse racing clips posted on the Sun website before I started to write this (October 19), two were from the AP concerning racing elsewhere, and two were simply raw results sent by the Maryland Jockey Club.  This isn’t even doing less with less; it’s doing nothing with less.[1]  Nor is The Baltimore Brew, the blog positioned as a “Sun-in-exile” for former Sun reporters, covering racing.[2]  Racing coverage is just  about gone. 

            Big and little, stories slip through the cracks, and the cracks keep getting wider.

 


[1]           In fairness, on October 20, there were two stories by local journalists about the bankruptcy of Magna, owner of the two Maryland thoroughbred tracks, and local regulatory response.

[2]           A keyword search of their website on 10/19/09 for “racing” came up with no hits.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

One Comment

  1. Jack, an excellent piece … so sad, and so very true. I remember it from the comfort of regular newspapers (multiple) while living in DC area as a child, and also tuning into Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, David Brinkly, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Hugh Downs, Jennings, Brokaw … such serious approach to serious subjects, and the written news …. worth following. A sad change – yet, more than sad, risky.

    That’s why I do subscribe to NYT,and enjoy the Washington Post, Financial Times, and BBC. And Stratfor, though that has a price, as well: http://www.stratfor.com

    Best, my friend. Keep it up.
    And visit http://www.cnas.org FREE and highly relevant.

    Niel

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