Sometimes the boundaries between government and the media are completely blurred, as was recently the case when a local paper in Newark, New Jersey, took $100,000 of municipal money to publicize positive developments in the city. That’s an obvious call, but other decisions regarding those boundaries are considerably trickier.
In some journalistic quarters, there was criticism of the 1995 New York Times and Washington Post decision to print the Unabomber manifesto at the request of the Justice Department — not only because it represented caving in to a terrorist’s request, but also because, in effect, it changed the media from a government watchdog into an arm of government and law enforcement.
During wartime, news outlets often err on the side of caution, motivated by an understandable unwillingness to put American troops in harm’s way. (The Washington Post reported that the 17 media outlets that had advance knowledge of the initial 2001 attack on Afghanistan all agreed to withhold that information.) But even in perilous times, the media need to guard their independence zealously.
A number of observers, this one included, felt that a group of five television news executives made a mistake by unanimously and quickly agreeing — via a conference call — to then–national security adviser Condoleezza Rice’s request in October 2001 to screen any Al Qaeda messages before airing them. Rather than giving a blanket okay to a government plea for prior restraint, the executives should have echoed the responses of Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, who both said they reserved the right to exercise their own judgment on a case-by-case basis.
The Pentagon’s decision to embed roughly 600 reporters with US troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq was an attractive offer to a news industry shunted to the sidelines during the 1983 invasion of Grenada and during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The quality of the embedded reporting was mixed. But it’s still hard to shake the overarching concern that by depending on the US military for safety, sustenance, and information, journalists had forfeited some of their crucial objectivity.
Sometimes, there’s a price to pay when the media exert their independence from the government and act as the bearer of bad news. Surveys done over the past half-dozen years by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press show that as a rule, less than 50 percent of the public believes news organizations “stand up for America” and “protect democracy.” (The lone big boost in the media ratings came right after 9/11, when the citizenry and journalists were all caught up in one frightened embrace.)
One 2005 Pew survey showed that 47 percent of the respondents felt that the media weakened the nation’s defenses by criticizing the military, compared with the 44 percent who believed that such criticism kept the country prepared. If legitimate journalistic scrutiny of such crucial government functions as Pentagon performance provokes a “shoot the messenger” response, it’s a price worth paying.
A history of animosity
In a sign of just how frayed relations are between the Bush White House and news outlets, the selection of Tony Snow — a media-savvy Fox News hand — to succeed stonewalling Scott McClellan as press secretary was seen as an olive branch to the media. (The New York Times treated Snow’s first televised press briefing as a major TV event, rendering its verdict with the headline AT WHITE HOUSE BRIEFING, POLISH REPLACES TESTINESS.)