Government and media are in a constant struggle for power, and the question is always, Who's winning now?
The answer appears to depend on one's politics. The administration's opponents on the left are certain that the White House is dominating us journalists. As evidence, they point to the media's failures to dig up the truth about prewar intelligence claims and to get inside the war on terror.
Even when a big story puts the president on the hot seat—for example, the news about domestic eavesdropping, broken last month by The New York Times—it's instantly transformed into fresh proof of media weakness. The Left bitterly regretted that the paper sat on the news for a year and that when the scoop was finally published, it omitted what The Times called "some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists." Clearly, the media are cowed by those in power. QED, Bush is winning.
On the right we find the opposite view: The government is losing and the media are winning. This side points to the media's ongoing attachment to bad news from Iraq—bombings, body counts, etc.—allegedly at the expense of the good news. No wonder the public doesn't realize how well the war has gone, the argument goes, with all those journalists effectively covering up the truth. Conclusion: The media are on top.
Who's right? None of the above. To understand the state of play in this eternal tug-of-war, you have to get beyond politics. While the news we all consume is certainly affected by ideology, it's shaped by other powerful factors, too. And the reality is, we live in a time when these non-ideological factors are decisive.
Journalism is in a state of dramatic flux. The number of outlets and voices has soared, while the news business itself has been cracked open for all to see. These changes, which are not ideological but structural, are profoundly affecting the way power is distributed.
Take the argument about war news. It's probably true that bad news dominates the Iraq beat. This is not necessarily because more bad-news stories come out of Iraq every single day—though often they do. Rather, it's because of the simple perceptual fact that bad news is newsier than good news. Death and mayhem draw a bigger crowd than peace and prosperity—always have, always will.
Lately, a structural change in the media has made this truer than ever. All wars bring both bad and good news, and stories of both types constantly vie for our attention. Thanks to the profusion of news outlets now available to anyone with a screen, it's harder for any given war story to grab our attention. Pressed for time, overwhelmed by headlines, we tend to notice the stories that are easiest to notice—the body counts—while passing over the happy ones about schools opening and factories buzzing. I'd wager that even White House types unconsciously do this, and so come away with the false perception that the good news about Iraq is being suppressed. Thanks to the crowded marketplace, the bad news has a built-in edge, and it appears the media are "winning."
But thanks to another structural change, government is also "winning." This is because something is happening to journalism that happened to government long ago—it's becoming more transparent. The media's sausage factory now has windows, and everyone's looking in and seeing how news is put together. Powerful outlets like CBS or The New York Times can no longer proceed as in days of old—put out a shocker about the president, then take a victory lap. Now an increasingly media-savvy public wants to know how you got that shocker, why it ran just now, and what internal debates preceded its release.
The media are totally porous. The story behind the story inevitably comes out, and it's often messy and embarrassing—witness the media's coal-mine disaster. When major news outlets are ensnared in scandal, as they often are these days, the government naturally appears to be on top. And if that worries you, just wait a few minutes.