Our journalism echoes our politics

If the press reflects the times, which way will it go now?
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  August 3, 2009
  The biggest myth in journalism is that news is what officials say.
Why won’t the Maine press inquire deeply into major issues? In these days of economic collapse and competition from the Internet, of course, many news organizations are running with skeleton staffs with no time to dig into anything. But for years, on numerous issues, I have seen the indications get fewer and fewer that Maine reporters want to confront government officials or other authorities and get the real story.

Take, for example, the mass torture of mostly mentally ill inmates at the Maine State Prison’s solitary-confinement “Supermax,” a subject I’ve covered for years. I’d welcome competition on this story, and in years past I would have expected it. Inmate suicides, hunger strikes, a murder, beatings by guards, official secrecy — this is raw meat for a feeding frenzy of media attention. Not this time — mostly, there has been silence.

Politicians, too, are silent on many issues. I cover the State House, and I can say categorically no politician there has expressed more than token interest in how prisoners are treated. For sure, convicted criminals are not exactly popular, but they are not a special case. Politicians also show little interest in the state’s scandalous treatment of those mentally ill people who happen not to be in the prisons. In years past, there would have been a few politicians — a few liberals, maybe — who would have seen a cause or two in these issues.

So, why, nowadays, are both politicians and press so neglectful of such issues? To try to answer this question is to illuminate the current condition of journalism in Maine and what has shaped it.

There’s a tight fit, a symbiosis, between politicians and press. They feed each other. If daily newspapers and TV news covered prison torture or the treatment of the mentally ill as the scandals they are, politicians would embark upon reform. More powerfully, though, politics feeds the press. If political actors cried for reform, the press would be on the story. American journalism and politics have demonstrated this symbiosis since the revolutionary days of the fighting and scribbling Sons of Liberty.

Freelance in Maine: Four decades of advocacy journalism. By Lance Tapley.
In politically liberal or conservative times, reflecting what is permitted by the ideological spirit of the times, the managers and practitioners of journalism become more liberal or conservative. Over my long career, I’ve witnessed an expansion and contraction of journalism’s boldness and power: from the end of a conservative era to liberal-radical activism and back to conservatism. Maine and national journalism have now contracted to the most conservative point I have seen — so far.

This wave in journalism was in synch with a political wave. Conservative politics means preserving the status quo and, on economic issues, those whom it rewards. Conservative journalism means going along with these things. It’s a contemporary cliché to say journalism’s future depends on how it meets the challenge of the Internet, which is killing newspapers while providing few places for newspapermen and -women to be employed, but journalism’s future also depends heavily on political developments.

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