The argument over how the news media cover government goes on and on. Is journalism too adversarial and excessively focused on alleged wrongdoing and personality conflicts? Or, conversely, do journalists too often let officialdom control what gets covered and how?
Both, says Lewis Wolfson, professor of communication at American University and former Washington bureau chief for The Providence Journal-Bulletin. The pervasive flaw of journalism, he argues, is that reporters put so much energy into the pursuit of scandal and conflict that they slight their most important job -- finding out how the processes of government really work.
While Wolfson is certainly not the first to reach that conclusion, he makes good arguments for it and offers some interesting insights along the way.
He observes, for example, that "journalists routinely strive to put themselves inside the world of athletes, actors, even criminals but shy from doing that with the most important story they will ever have to cover."
And why do most reporters distance themselves this way from the world of government? Because, Wolfson says, they feel that "their reflexive adversary stance toward public officials . . . is the only way to avoid being used or deceived." The result is that they deny themselves, and their audiences, any real exploration of the pressures at work on government officials.
Wolfson also faults reporters for simply not being curious enough when it comes to covering government.
"They are not inherently interested in what's involved in developing a policy or formulating a budget or administering a program, or what impact these decisions may have at the grass roots," he says.
True, true. Reminds me of the many times I tried, during my tenure in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, to interest distinguished reporters from distinguished publications in the effort the department was making to find out whether its billion-dollar programs were actually reaching the intended beneficiaries and doing any good. Their eyes glazed. They didn't want to hear about anything except the latest rumors (often accurate) of contention between the department and the White House
That was a pity but, as Wolfson notes, even more serious than the customary failure of the media to examine how governmental policy is implemented is the failure to look carefully enough at how it is made.
"Journalists frequently let policy makers define the dimensions of an issue and the options for dealing with it," he says. If the policy fails, "they rush to discover what went wrong, looking more for incompetence or corruption than for shortcomings in the policy making process that may have compromised the approach from the start."
The result is real injury to the workings of government because "the media are at their best when they concentrate public attention on an issue while policy is being worked out -- the time when decision makers are most impressionable and when mistakes can be caught."
If those who have served in government will find much to cheer in "The Untapped Power of the Press," so will many reporters. In particular, they are likely to welcome the extent to which Wolfson pins the blame for superficial and adversarial coverage not on the reporters but on their bosses, the editors and TV producers. Anyone who has ever hung around reporters much -- it is not necessary to have been one -- knows there are many more reporters who would like to dig into how government works than there are news executives who will give them the time and space to do it.
Unfortunately, the cure for this problem is probably not forcing editors and TV producers to read Wolfson's book. While his point of view is almost always valid, it is just that -- a point of view that is stated rather than documented. The book is seriously lacking in the specific examples that would make Wolfson's arguments simultaneously more interesting to read and more convincing.