Why Does the American Media Get Big Stories Wrong?

A magazine publisher has written a provocative article raising that question. I try to offer some answers.

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Colin Dunn/Flickr

In an article titled "Our American Pravda," Ron Unz, the businessman, writer, and publisher of The American Conservative, argues that there is good reason to be alarmed by the failures of the American media. Surveying stories as diverse as the Soviet spies that infiltrated the U.S. government during the Cold War, the bankruptcy of Enron, the anthrax attacks of 2001, the run-up to the Iraq War, and the Vioxx scandal, he points out that major news organizations have repeatedly missed or inexplicably ignored newsworthy facts and events of the utmost significance. "The realization that the world is often quite different from what is presented in our leading newspapers and magazines is not an easy conclusion for most educated Americans to accept," he writes. "For decades, I have closely read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and one or two other major newspapers every morning, supplemented by a wide variety of weekly or monthly opinion magazines. Their biases in certain areas had always been apparent to me. But I felt confident that by comparing and contrasting the claims of these different publications and applying some common sense, I could obtain a reasonably accurate version of reality. I was mistaken."

The metaphor Unz chose in his headline provokes more than it distills.

His whole article is nevertheless worth reading (with the caution that Tyler Cowen wisely counsels). At its best, "Our American Pravda" is a vital reminder that many things we're told are wrong; that we aren't told many things of vital importance; and that the U.S. media is rife with flaws, many of them easily identifiable. Unz does a service by highlighting these shortcomings powerfully and compellingly. What explains them? Below I offer several theories and observations, noting concurrences and several disagreements with Unz's analysis as needed. Unless otherwise noted, references to "the media" in this article are meant to encompass major newspapers, well-known web and print magazines, and national TV and radio news outlets.

1) Excessive deference to government officials is one factor that causes the news media to get important stories wrong, especially in the realms of national security, law enforcement, and public safety. Sometimes coverage even transforms government officials into unimpeachable icons. Two bungled stories that Unz mentions, the near elevation of Bernard Kerik and the Iraq War, are explained partly by changes in the way the press treated Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush right after 9/11. This deference is both a cause and an effect of a similar impulse within the American people, who want the media to rally around officials in times of crisis.

It is also partly explained by the fact that journalistic decision-makers often live and socialize in the same ruling-class circles as the people they cover, and are inclined to give them the benefits of certain doubts, like the presumption that they're good people doing their honest best in a difficult situation. Perhaps that presumption needn't ruin coverage on its own, but it becomes deeply problematic when the benefit of the same doubt is consistently withheld from critics of the ruling class, whether anti-war protesters, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Julian Assange, libertarians, foreigners who object to U.S. policy, federal whistleblowers, and other dissenters.  

2) Because of business imperatives and dubious professional norms, lots of relatively well-paid journalists duplicate one another's work. The White House press corps is an illustrative example. There are reasons why so many people sit in the briefing room shouting questions at the press secretary. Some of them are where they ought to be (everyone benefits when Jake Tapper is in that room). But if the number of reporters attending the daily briefing was cut in half, and the people cut were sent out to report on some undercovered story somewhere else, the result would surely be a news media that, in aggregate, produced more information of civic value. I am not sure, however, that the new mix of stories would result in more readers -- there is a surprising amount of interest in fleeting, inconsequential statements from the White House.

3) Lots of Americans get their news from television, a terrible medium for obtaining good information. The cost of producing quality broadcast journalism, as opposed to inane interview and debate segments, the obsession with ratings, and the practice of hiring on-air "talent" for their appearance and charisma more than for their intellect all inevitably result in a poor product. Every network has talented producers and anchors who are a credit to their profession. The fact that they can excel, even under the aforementioned constraints, is impressive. But their work is the exception to the rule: If you want better journalism, turn off the TV and start reading.

4) American society undervalues watchdog journalism. That sounds like a self-serving thing for a staff writer at a magazine to say, so permit me to make the point in the most concrete way possible. In large swaths of America, newspapers remain the primary watchdog on local government. Hugely corrupt officials abusing their power in egregious ways is a story any newspaper ought to write about, and failure to do so is accurately regarded as missing a huge story. The city council of Bell, California, misappropriated millions of dollars of public funds, and did so in a way that any competent beat reporter should have caught. Yet the Los Angeles Times didn't break the story until the abuse had been going on for years. Why? The problem wasn't incompetent reporters -- it was the fact that the L.A. Times had no beat reporter dedicated to the city, had closed the bureau that used to direct coverage in that part of Los Angeles County, and had lost institutional knowledge of the area in the course of layoffs over the years.

Once L.A. Times reporters found the time to look into Bell, they quickly exposed the rampant corruption. Had a reporter been assigned full time to Bell, the city council might've felt scrutinized enough that they never would've risked what they did. At worst, they would've been caught after squandering many thousands rather than millions of dollars. Given all that, paying a competent reporter $80,000 per year to cover Bell would've seemed like a no-brainer, but despite having no watchdog besides newspapers to keep an eye on most municipal officials, Southern Californians don't support newspapers enough for them to fulfill their oversight function. We aren't unique. I delve into this complicated problem at greater length in "The New Watchdogs."

5) Having described the failure of the press to uncover impending doom at Enron or Bernie Madoff's hedge fund, Unz writes, "In many respects, the non-detection of these business frauds is far more alarming than failure to uncover governmental malfeasance. Politics is a partisan team sport, and it is easy to imagine Democrats or Republicans closing ranks and protecting their own, despite damage to society. Furthermore, success or failure in public policies is often ambiguous and subject to propagandistic spin. But investors in a fraudulent company lose their money and therefore have an enormous incentive to detect those risks, with the same being true for business journalists. If the media cannot be trusted to catch and report simple financial misconduct, its reliability on more politically charged matters will surely be lower."

This is unpersuasive. As a matter of both law and prevailing norms, journalists have a lot more access to government officials and public information than to goings-on in most private enterprises. The typical journalist also understands the worlds of politics, policy, and government better than business or finance. And while almost every journalist would agree that furnishing the information a democracy needs to function is a core duty of the profession, it is unclear, at least to me, that saving wealthy New Yorkers from unscrupulous hedge-fund managers is something media outlets ought to develop a capacity to do better, even having failed. No one had a better incentive to detect the risks of investing with Madoff than his investors. If they couldn't succeed in doing so, why would journalists be expected to do better?

Why would they prioritize trying?

As a public company that got its share of fawning profiles before its collapse, Enron is a much more damning example. It is still false to suggest that business journalists had as big an incentive to catch the fraud as investors. In fact, my sense is that business journalists generally have an incentive to cheerlead for "hot" companies rather than questioning their apparent success, which inevitably results in push-back from powerful actors and less access granted. (I am unfamiliar with the trade press, which may well perform a lot better on this metric.)  

6) Journalistic outlets respond to media criticism. Unfortunately, the most visible, consistent, influential type of media criticism we have in America, the critique offered by the conservative movement, leaves a lot to be desired. As it happens, I agree with conservatives that liberal bias is sometimes present, and that the best conservative and libertarian insights often don't get their due. But the conservative movement gives the misleading impression that all bias in media is ideological in nature; and it often advances criticism that is unjustified by the facts on a given subject. Iraq is the best example. As the U.S. war effort was failing, mainstream media reporters were filing increasingly alarmed dispatches from Iraq. Back in America, conservative bloggers persuaded themselves that a liberal, anti-Bush, anti-war media was hyping bad news for ideological reasons. Thus, as Iraq descended into chaos, conservative bloggers spent years writing "good news from Iraq" posts to tell the "real" story that the media was allegedly suppressing.

Other times, conservatives invoke media bias not so much because they want to improve poor coverage of a subject, but as an ever-present cudgel that helps rally the base to their defense even when they're wrong. Thus Herman Cain invoked media bias as it became apparent that he was woefully unqualified to be president, and Michele Bachmann preemptively invoked it in her recent "I'm retiring" message, as if any skeptical scrutiny would be a sign of journalistic malfeasance. A smarter, less opportunistic critique from conservatives, updated somewhat from the 1990s, or a sustained critique of media bias from another faction, ideally one not grounded in ideology, would do more to improve the media than the current conservative critique has in years.

7) No one is in charge here. This is where the Pravda metaphor fails. The American media may have a pack mentality at times, but news-gathering is ultimately a decentralized enterprise. Its uncoordinated nature is a boon to its independence, but no outlet can cover every important story, and with no one coordinating, sometimes an important story is undercovered by the press as a whole, without any individual or publication bearing responsibility, or having done anything wrong. This is often forgotten when we talk about "the media," as is the fact that the audience increasingly helps to influence which news becomes a big, national story.

Why does the media miss some significant stories and pay too little attention to others? Thus far, I've argued that excessive deference to government officials, sending lots of journalists to cover the same unimportant events, flaws in TV as a news medium, a society that undervalues watchdog journalism, incentives to cheerlead in the business press, the inadequacy of our most influential strain of media criticism, and the fact that no one coordinates coverage all play a part. There are dozens of other important factors too -- I can't even begin to run through them all. (It is daunting to explain why the press covered a single story as it did, never mind many of them.)   

The Unz essay proceeds as if the media decides what it thinks the people ought to know, then informs Americans accordingly. That's part of the story. Editors do sit around at the New York Times deciding what is to appear on the front page of the next day's newspaper, and what package the investigative team will work on for Sunday after next. But journalists are more constrained than you'd think from the way media is discussed by its critics; and understanding those constraints helps to explain the gulf between what's important and what's covered. Journalistic reforms can and should improve media in various ways; but some flaws are better explained by business imperatives, as well as the American mainstream's patronage of bad journalism.