On November 24, The New York Times published a page-one story by Tamar Lewin that explored why “an odd hush has fallen over Washington: the sound of advocacy groups that have been unable to create much of a clamor against the most drastic cuts in decades.”
Ms. Lewin, in all modesty, left out a significant explanation for this “odd hush”—The New York Times itself. Long the dominant journalistic agenda-setter in the nation’s capital, the Times’s Washington bureau has pursued a course of indifference to liberal and progressive advocacy groups.
Notwithstanding well-advanced press conferences, reports, testimony and marches, these environmental, social service, minority rights, consumer, labor and government-reform groups have not been defined as worthy of Times coverage. It does not matter how timely, new or important the material is, bureau chief Johnny Apple almost never can spare any of his thirty-five reporters covering Washington. “We don’t cover news conferences or reports,” one reporter told me.
If a group’s story doesn’t make it into the Times or The Washington Post—which is locked in a looking-over-the-shoulder match with its northern competitor—national TV and Sunday talk shows are also unlikely to pick it up. Week after week of looking the other way, and the media cease to recognize their own exclusions. Let some examples do for many. Consumer groups, including ours, held twelve press conferences this year on topics including bank lending practices, corporate welfare, highway safety, food safety, product liability, medical malpractice, campaign finance, corporate crime and regulatory abdication. These subjects were being contested in Congress, but because the Democrats were not very visible in opposition, citizen groups moved to fill the vacuum. They met a not-so ”odd hush” from the Times.
Of course, there is more to the Times Washington bureau than Johnny Apple. But although his leadership is largely general on a day-to-day basis, he does foster a climate of hubris among some reporters and does little to shake up thinking about what is news. He has declined to put a full-time reporter on the federal regulatory agencies that oversee corporate practices, consumer health, safety and economic rights. “It ain’t going to happen,” he told me last year. And it hasn’t.
The bureau defines news as flowing from power. Consider the case of Thomas Friedman and the coverage of the GATT struggle in 1994. More than any other reporter in the country, Friedman set the tone for treating GATT as if it were just an issue between free traders and nativist protectionists.
Before he left the GATT beat, Friedman acknowledged on Washington Week in Review what was suspected all along: that he was a fervent supporter of this global agreement. His critical faculties thus dimmed, he never explored questions relating to the impact an international autocratic regime, the World Trade Organization, would have on our democratic processes. His stories gave no indication that he had read the 500-page GATT document itself, while dutifully reporting the Administration’s maneuvers to get GATT through Congress.
When fifty-one leaders of established news organizations and media groups sent a letter to President Clinton on September 14, 1994, denouncing the closed-door secrecy of the W.T.O. tribunals and official meetings as “an affront to the democratic traditions of this nation,” Friedman ignored this unprecedented statement as not newsworthy. When more than thirty state attorneys general and other state officials protested incursions on state sovereignty by the W.T.O.’s procedures in a complaint to the Clinton Administration, Friedman paid no attention. A score of news conferences and reports presenting new information by the GATT proposal’s chief opponents—labor, consumer, environmental and farm groups—went unreported by Friedman. He certainly was aware of the polls showing much of American public opinion concerned about or opposed to GATT. But Times readers never knew what was going on in Washington’s battle over GATT, apart from official activity, because Friedman, a double Pulitzer Prize winner, was subject to little monitoring by his superiors. “Nobody edits Tom Friedman,” one of his colleagues told me, without much exaggeration. By late summer of 1994, I stopped counting the number of times that other television and print reporters would justify their neglect of the other side of the GATT controversy by mentioning that the Times was not writing about these activities either. That was obviously a cop-out, but it let the Administration succeed in managing the news. As the Times’s David Sanger wrote on November 20, 1994, “Over the past year the Administration tried desperately to keep anyone from noticing GATT” He could have tipped his hat to colleague Friedman.
The best reporters at the Times bureau are the ones who do not prejudge the early emergence of a story, who do not see themselves as part of making or breaking a story, who maintain a sense of wonder and discovery, and who recognize the importance of the civil society outside official circles. These are reporters from the school of the Times’s new managing editor, Gene Roberts. Roberts, who so greatly improved The Philadelphia Inquirer, does not pretend to know ahead of time everything that’s fit to print, which is why he is probably the most respected big-time newspaper editor of his generation.
Roberts knows that if a newspaper is addicted to reporting what power divulges, if it neglects to cover the challengers of power, it will never really cover power. In Washington, the challengers are hundreds of citizen advocacy groups whose legal filings and positions run athwart an overwhelmingly corporatized government.
There was a time about thirty years ago when the Times covered a powerless critic of the automobile industry and of government inaction on motor vehicle safety. By staying with the story through the enactment of historic safety legislation in 1966, the Times played a vital role in one of our nation’s greatest lifesaving initiatives. Comparable progressive efforts in many directions in today’s Washington by today’s challengers are rarely defined as newsworthy, even in news briefs, a format that the bureau has not yet adopted. The country and the Times are both poorer for the result.