by Randolph T. Holhut
press heaped hosannas on Katherine Graham upon her death last month at the age of 84. As owner and publisher of The Washington Post, she was the boss that most reporters dream of working for and transformed a third-rate newspaper into an influential and powerful institution.
While Graham got praised for her work in standing up to the government in printing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and her paper's coverage of Watergate, what was forgotten was how uneasy she was with the power of the press.
In a speech not long after President Nixon's resignation, Graham said that "the press these days should ... be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist."
By beckoning the press to resume being stenographers to the powerful, the owner of the newspaper that helped bring down a president set the tone for the news media for the decades to follow.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in the coverage of a scandal even more enormous than Watergate -- how George W. Bush stole the 2000 presidential election.
We found out months after the fact that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered local election officials to purge 64,000 names from the voter lists because they were "felons" and thus ineligible to vote in Florida. As it turned out, very few folks in this group were felons, but almost all were Democrats and about 54 percent were black.
We've learned, months after the fact, that George W. Bush's campaign applied two difference standards for absentee ballots mailed from overseas -- strict for Democratic counties, lax for Republican counties. Remember, the Bush camp label Democrats as "unpatriotic" for insisting that the standards be uniformly applied for absentee ballots, most of which came from military personnel.
We've learned, months after the fact, that Al Gore may have lost up to 25,000 votes from ballot errors that resulted from poorly designed ballots and misinformation given to voters and that hundreds of ballots would have been credited to Gore had the hand count that was ultimately stopped by the Supreme Court been allowed to continue.
Unfortunately, the horse is already out of the barn and galloping down the road. George W. Bush is president, and that happened thanks to a press corps that bought into the spin churned out by the conservative media that Bush was the legitimately elected candidate and Gore was a interloper threatening American democracy by challenging the outcome of what we now see was a blatantly crooked election.
good example of this was what happened to Greg Palast, a American investigative reporter living in London who writes for The Guardian and its Sunday paper, The Observer. He had the story of the faulty felon list back in November, while the votes were still being counted. It ran on the front page of The Observer. He explained what happened in a 14-minute report on BBC television and in the online magazine Salon. But the story was largely absent from the American press and no one bothered to follow up the story while it was still news.
Why? Palast tells this story.
He got a call from a CBS network news producer shortly after The Observer and Salon stories appeared. Palast happily gave the producer all the names, numbers and sources to put the story together. The next day, he got a call from the producer who told him that the story didn't hold up because they had called Gov. Jeb Bush's office, which denied everything. Case closed.
In this little incident, Palast wrote back in March, all of the problems of American journalism came together in a nutshell.
"First, the story is difficult to tell in the usual 90 seconds allotted for national reports," he wrote. "The BBC gave me a 14-minute slot to explain it. Second, the story required massive and quick review of documents, hundreds of phone calls and interviews, hardly a winner in the slam-bam-thank you-ma'am school of U.S. journalism. The BBC gave me two weeks to develop the story.
"Third, the revelations in the story required a reporter to stand up and say the big name politicians, their lawyers and their PR people were freaking liars. It would be much easier, and a heck of a lot cheaper, to wait for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to do the work, then cover the Commission's canned report and press conference.
"Fourth, investigative reports require taking a chance. Fraudsters and vote riggers don't reveal all their evidence. And they lie. Make an allegation, and you're open to attack, or unknown information that may prove you wrong. No one ever lost their job writing canned states from a press conference.
"Fifth -- and this is no small matter -- no one ever got sued for not running an investigative story. ... Finally, there's another little matter working against U.S. reporters running after the hard stories ... the news chiefs who kill or bury these stories on page 200 on the belief that the public really doesn't want to hear all this bad and very un-sexy news."
Except, in the case of Palast's original story, so many American readers flooded The Guardian/Observer's Web site that they crashed the paper's computer servers. And webcast viewership of the BBC's Newsnight program grew by 10,000 percent from Americans seeking the news they weren't getting from their own journalists.
Fear, laziness and apathy aren't a combination that makes for good journalism. But reporters and editors quickly learn that to get along, they have to go along. And going along means avoiding stories that can get you and your company in trouble or following the crowd in hyping non-existent scandals while ignoring the real scandals that require more work to expose. It means being stenographers to the powerful, instead of challenging the status quo.
As Palast has pointed out: "Remember, 'All The President's Men' was so unusual they had to make a movie out of it."
Katherine Graham has apparently got what she wished for. Since Watergate, the press has gone from being lions to being lambs. If you are wondering how George W. Bush got to be president, put some of the blame on a docile media too worried about maintaining its own profitability and status to speak truth to power.
August 13, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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