October 4th, 2005

Journalism’s Catch-22

In naming President Bush Person of the Year 2004, Time magazine received both Oval Office access for its photographer and a second interview with the president in less than four months (the previous story was in August, apropos the Republican National Convention).

Reading such exclusives inevitably prompts one question: in order to attain—and, more important, to maintain—such access, do journalists temper their coverage of the given subject? After all, if they are too critical of, say, the Iraq war, they risk alienating Bush, who reportedly snubbed Peter Jennings, who interviewed the last four sitting presidents, for that reason.

Indeed, the press critic Michael Massing describes today’s relationship between high-powered reporters and the White House this way:

“Karen D. Young, one of the top editors [at the Washington Post], said . . . ‘Let’s face it, we are basically a mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power’. . . . It’s a major admission of how the major media have in fact served as conveyor belts. . . . have gotten so much toward a position to be handmaidens to the people in power. . . . [Take,] for instance, Pentagon correspondents flying with Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz to Iraq and Afghanistan. They want to be on the plane. They know if they write things that are too critical, they’re not going to get seats there. . . . Your career can be shredded if you speak out too much against those in power.”

On the other hand, if a journalist is too mealy-mouthed, he sacrifices fairness and balance. See Judy Miller vis-à-vis Ahmed Chalabi.

How, then, do and how should journalists draw the line between closeness to sources and responsibility to readers?

One suggestion: Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post columnist, Time essayist, contributing editor to the New Republic and Weekly Standard, and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Granted, Krauthammer opines rather than reports, which means his job doesn’t depend on cultivating sources. But he’s also one of the most eloquent and prominent neoconservatives, and, as such, has consulted with the Bush administration. (In fact, he was criticized for failing to disclose his meeting with White House officials regarding the president’s second inaugural.)

And yet, during the early days of Hurricane Katrina, Krauthammer didn’t hesitate to call W “[l]ate, slow, and simply out of tune with the urgency and magnitude of the disaster.” He continues:

“His flyover on the way to Washington was the worst possible symbolism. And his Friday visit was so tone-deaf and politically disastrous that he had to fly back three days later.”

The point: criticize the presidency, not the president.

Postscript (10/25/2005): Or follow Krauthammer’s conservative colleague on the Post op-ed page, George Will, who in a recent column said this about the president and Harriet Miers: “He has neither the inclination nor the ability to make sophisticated judgments about competing ap-proaches to construing the Constitution. Few presidents acquire such abilities in the course of their pre-presidential careers, and this president particularly is not disposed to such reflections.”

Postscript (10/26/2005): Hmm…

Postscript (10/29/2005): The Los Angeles Times reports: “On one occasion, the office [of the vice president] prohibited a reporter from traveling with Cheney aboard Air Force Two, because the vice president’s daughter said Cheney was unhappy with that newspaper’s coverage.”

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