US News & World Distort, of all places, had one of their writers go out and interview what they describe as a group of “veteran and prize-winning journalists who covered presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush” to get their thoughts on the state of White House reporting today. To a man, they conclude that said state is, well, rather milquetoast and tepid:
“If you watch an Obama news conference, and watched a Bush news conference previous to that, where correspondents sit in their seats with their hands folded on their laps, [it’s] as if they are in the room with a monarch and they have to wait to be recognized by the president,” says Sid Davis, the former NBC Washington bureau chief who covered nine presidents.
Though I can hardly complain that Davis is exaggerating or merely trying to be provocative. Davis and the other former journalists interviewed also have no axe to grind – especially as a group – with current crop of folks who do their former jobs. Yet the unanimity of opinion in the piece is remarkable. Only Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton’s press secretary, offers a note of moderation in the sea of bad reviews:
“Reports of the press conference’s death are exaggerated, I think,” he says. “Presidents will need a forum like that to clear the air and give at least the appearance of accountability–and the press will continue to want to demonstrate its relevance by standing up and speaking truth to power.”
However, even McCurry agreed with one of the other interviewees, John Palmer, who said “the ‘golden age’ of presidential news conferences, like the videos of an engaging JFK shown at the panel discussion, might be over.”
We’ve known that since the early days of the Bush administration, at least. Good to see that some others are finally beginning to realize it, I guess. I say “I guess,” because I’m not sure how much traction a story like this gets outside of its own readership. “The media” has always presented an easy target for people’s disdain, but in the last 10-15 years, things have gotten much worse at the very top levels – or maybe I should say, at the levels that cover the very top. Perhaps my favorite blogger, Digby, often excoriates the insular Washington community of highly-paid journalists who are too close to the sources they cover which she christened “the village,” and media criticism sites like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org have begun to spring up like crabgrass in recent years.
I tend to view such things with mixed feelings. One the one hand, it’s good that such organizations are springing up to fact-check the major media. It helps keep them honest. On the other hand, it doesn’t escape my notice that probably a large part of the reason why such groups have sprung up is for the unfortunate reason that the media themselves, who used to perform that function as a final step in their own reportage, no longer does so. At the end of the day, it’s my view that the media should once again resume their traditional role of speaking truth to (or at least asking pointed questions of) power more forcefully. They used to do this for us, and there’s no reason they still can’t. The media aren’t now and weren’t ever the final arbiters of ultimate truth, but as things stand now, we’ve a lot harder time of discovering the truth as plumbers and lawyers and teachers on our own after a long day at work, than do the people who actually get PAID to do so – at least theoretically.