More Secrecy, Fewer Reporters

Secrecy?not transparency?is in high vogue in post?9/11 Washington.

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A coincidence of timing has highlighted two disturbing trends in the media world—more secrecy, less reporting. “Sunshine Week,” an undertaking to advocate greater access to government information, has just come to a close. You may have missed it: secrecy—not transparency—is in high vogue in post–9/11 Washington. There was an ominous story in the Washington Post on government attempts to control information by questioning staffers about leaks and threatening to pursue reporters for receiving secret information. And the National Archives was found to be reclassifying material long since released on the grounds that details from the mid-twentieth century might pose a risk today. As David Gergen, now of the Kennedy School at Harvard but with government experience that extends back to the Nixon years, recently said on CNN, the Bush administration “has engaged in secrecy at a level we haven’t seen in 30 years.”

Meanwhile, the Pew-supported Project for Excellence in Journalism released its “State of the Media 2005” report which makes the general point that there is a lot more in the way of opinion, comment, and aggregated information these days (on places like Google and Yahoo), but less in the way of traditional newsgathering. Even the biggest newsrooms—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times—are getting smaller, in part because resources have to be redeployed to develop their Web sites and add more blogs, interactive features, and video. I was particularly struck by Howard Kurtz’s statistic culled from the 600 page report: In the Philadelphia area, the total of newspaper reporters has dropped from 500 to 220 over the past 25 years. Television and radio news departments have also been cut back.

More secrecy and fewer reporters is a sour mix if the goal is an informed public. I think Gergen is right to compare this Bush administration to the Nixon years. While the hardliners in the senior team—Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, in particular—were around in that earlier era, there are also parallels for the use of secrecy as a means to shape political objectives. In the Hoover-era FBI, Mark Felt as the deputy director (revealed last spring to be “Deep Throat” and whose memoirs PublicAffairs will be publishing shortly) sanctioned warrentless entries of the residences of suspected terrorists in the Weather Underground. He believed that they were a sufficient threat to the country to sidestep the courts and the rule of law.

In any number of ways, the language of that time about terrorism and national security was strikingly similar to what is being said now. The White House cover-up strategy in Watergate (which Felt, ironically, undermined with his guidance of Woodward and Bernstein) was to claim that national security was the issue rather than political thuggery. Time and again in the 20th century, the dangers of Communist subversion were an excuse for widespread government abuse of civil liberties. The War on Terror is today’s version. The media’s responsibility to protect those rights, pious as it may sound, is fundamental.

What is distinctive about today is that real news and explanatory information has to co-exist with so much accompanying debris in the world of Internet and cable commentary. The amount of blather is vast and the shallowness of most of the programming on, say, MSNBC, is stunning. Listening to cable news networks on satellite radio, as I occasionally do in the car, makes that point especially clear because there are no distracting visuals, whiz-bang graphics and the inevitable closeups of weeping or indignant interviewees. The actual news content is minimal. It is a fair bet that the highest-paid investigative reporters at newspapers and magazines—the kind that produce superb revelations like Dana Priest of the Post (the secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe) or James Risen of the New York Times (the government’s secret wiretapping of suspected terrorists)—earn nowhere near as much as the television personalities, who actually, in many cases, have significantly smaller audiences.

These reporters can and do write books and win prizes and for that we should be grateful. There are certainly still ample awards in the media world for aggressive journalism. Having recently seen Priest and Risen together talking about their work, I was impressed with both their self-assurance and their lack of self-importance. It is heartening every year to read the best output in newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and books because there is a steady stream with newcomers galore. Yet it is also a fact that there are fewer people in the newsroom than there were, by seven percent since 2000, according to the Project for Excellence Study. And, as I said at the outset, the trend is disturbing given the time-honored pressure for revenue and the spread of noise at the expense of news.

Government’s preference for unnecessary secrecy is nothing new. Time and again that secrecy has led to poor policies and injustice. All the more reason for a renewed commitment to Sunshine and the old-fashioned reporting that provides so much of it.


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