July 16, 2009

The New Washington Press Corps

Conclusion

There are those who argue that the decline of mainstream media reporting power in Washington is caused by more than the industry’s financial struggles. They claim that the editorial model of Washington reporting is broken in a way that makes mainstream media reporting on federal government affairs seem irrelevant, boring or off-key to everyday Americans.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that editors now believe national reporting is less important to their charge than they once did. A survey conducted by Project for Excellence in Journalism earlier this year found a definite ambivalence to national news among newsroom executives far from the nation’s capital. Less than one in five (18%) of the 259 editors responding to the survey considered national news “very essential” to their news product. By comparison, 97% viewed local news as “very essential.”

Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters, who is generally credited with rewriting the rules of national political coverage in the 1970s with his magazine’s in-depth, straight-ahead style of stories on government and corporate abuse, said in an interview he believed too many Washington journalists have lost touch with their readers. He contended that rising journalistic salaries coupled with the proximity to power had created distance between reporters and the average newspaper reader.

“Washington journalism has become more elitist in its attitude,’’ said Peters, who was raised as part of a West Virginia farming family. “It’s become a more educated elite, so they identify with those above them, not those from below. This has happened without journalists being aware of it.”

Peters and some others also claim the proliferation of cable television current events and talk-show television has made celebrities of many journalists and elevated the ability to deliver a clever or cynical sound bite above in-depth reporting skills.

But not everyone agrees.

“I think there’s an appetite not for insider Washington stuff but for news about Washington—national news that readers do want,” said Howell. “I know papers have decided in these tight times to go local, local, local, but that doesn’t mean the readers don’t want [Washington news].”

Baquet says he simply doesn’t believe editors who say Washington reporting is not essential to their news product. “They are fibbing,” he said. “You can’t tell me this election didn’t electrify the country.”  

Widespread praise for the quality of Washington reporting on the financial crisis raised hopes among doubters that strong, objective, factual reporting about issues central to the lives of individual Americans will once again come into favor.

“You’ve caught me in a rare moment of optimism,” Peters said.

Almost certainly, the federal government is going to play an enlarged role in American lives in the Obama era. And one adage almost certainly applies—as government grows and tries to affect change, so will the efforts of special interests to shape that change.

The news media in place to cover that transformation is very different from the one even Obama’s predecessor arrived to find eight years earlier.

Elites who are plugged into the new fragmented niche media of Washington will know how that government is growing and what it means, and they will be learning it through new media channels. Their fellow citizens who rely on local or network television or their daily newspapers, however, will be harder pressed to learn what their elected representatives are doing.