A new study shows that the press isn't as fearless or adversarial as it should be.
Noted white man Donald Rumsfeld gives a press conference to a bunch of other white men at the beginning of the Iraq War. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Today's typical journalist is an unhappily middle-aged white male who complains he's losing his freedom while declining to use that freedom to threaten those taking it away. That, at least, is the takeaway from a survey of reporters that found they are older, whiter, and better-educated than they were a decade ago—and more timid than ever before.
The survey, “The American Journalist in the Digital Age,” was carried out by researchers at Indiana University and is based on interviews with over 1,000 US journalists working for radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, wire services, and websites. According to the survey, fewer reporters than ever say they have “almost complete freedom” in selecting stories—a third said that in 2013, compared with 60 percent in 1982—and fewer members of the fourth estate are willing to get their hands dirty in the service of speaking truth to power.
All graphs courtesy of Indiana University
Two decades ago, more than 81 percent of journalists said it “may be justified” to report on “confidential business or government documents without authorization”; in 2013, that number had fallen to below 60 percent, meaning that more than four out of ten respondents believe that their stories should be approved by the government or corporation they’re reporting on. In every way, journalists are more docile than before, with the survey finding that three quarters of journalists think it is wrong to obtain a job “to gain inside information,” while just 4.5 percent said it's sometimes OK to pay “for confidential information”—bizarrely, more journalists think “badgering unwilling informants” is justified (37.7 percent), though even that number is down.
The media’s meekness is evident in how it treats those who provide it with vital information—actual news, as opposed to never-ending electoral speculation and op-ed outrage. Chelsea Manning, the US soldier who leaked thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks—thereby helping reporters file thousands upon thousands of stories about government and corporate malfeasance, from US complicity in torture in Iraq to the widespread slaughter of civilians in Afghanistan—was largely condemned for doing so. As a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor put it, “In the case of Manning, it's not clear that anything was revealed in [her] leaks beyond the horrors of war and reams of fairly routine diplomatic collection and reporting.”
Apparently, nothing bores the US press corps more than a routine diplomatic cable proving US cluster bombs killed 41 innocent men, women, and children in Yemen. But as the survey suggests, journalists weren’t always so willing to shrug at crimes committed by those in power. Now, though, they are remarkably incurious creatures, with more reporters saying they would like to increase their knowledge of “podcast production” rather than their “knowledge of world affairs.”
“I think a lot of the change has to do with social class and expectations,” said Jim Lobe, the Washington bureau chief for Inter Press Service, an international news agency. Lobe—who is sometimes my editor, through no fault of his own—has been covering politics out of the National Press Club for more than three decades. And while he's seen a lot of bad reporting, he said there is no doubt things have shifted for the worse.
“Journalists are now indisputably part of the Washington elite compared with 30 years ago,” Lobe told me. “They now mix very comfortably with the people they cover, not just on the job but socially as well.”
Instead of having an adversarial stance toward those with power, journalists are friends (sometimes with benefits) of those who wield it. That's always been the case to some extent, but now there isn't even the pretense of trying to be an outsider. “Objectivity” has come to mean uncritically regurgitating quotes from a couple of “sources” or “unnamed officials” the reporter has relationships with and leaving it to the reader to figure out who’s up to no good.
Lars Willnat, a journalism professor at Indiana University who coauthored the survey, told me he’s “not really sure why journalists are more timid today,” but he suspects “that it has something to do with the tighter job market.” Journalists might fear losing their jobs if they are too aggressive in their reporting, and there are fewer and fewer opportunities for a fired journalist to get hired elsewhere. “Looking at our data, it seems that journalism during the past decade has become somewhat tamer,” Willnat wrote in an email, “with a focus on analyzing complex issues rather than serving as watchdog.”
Instead of exposing corruption, “data-driven” sites like Vox produce journalism that analyze complex topics by answering important questions like “What is marijuana?” Wonkery that accepts the general framing provided by the powerful is a profitable enterprise; “expertise” is a valuable commodity.
“One recent remarkable change has been what happens at think tanks these days,” said Lobe. “Every time there's a big session on something with big names, having a famous journalist moderate the discussion has become an absolute 'must have'… Journalists have become celebrities with whom 'experts' are eager to be associated with. And while a lot a lot of these journalists are very smart and well-informed, if you have them as moderators, asking questions and acting deferentially toward the experts and officials in settings like these, that helps define the conventional wisdom for other journalists who aspire to be as prominent and successful as moderators.”
There is no downside to being perceived as friendly to those in power—if you're friendly enough, you may even become their spokesperson—but if you are perceived as a troublemaker, no one will pay you to moderate their discussions, and you may lose the lifeblood of a lazy journalist: access. “In so many ways, it's a weird scene,” Lobe told me.
Careerism may explain part of it, but journalists are also older, whiter, and more educated than they were a decade ago—these are people, in other words, for whom the system is working, at least compared with the young, brown, and less educated. Of those surveyed by the researchers at Indiana University, 92 percent were college graduates (fewer than six out of ten journalists had degrees 40 years ago), and 91.5 percent were white. And while more reporters are women these days, journalism is still by and large an old boys' club, with men representing 62.5 percent of all journalists. The median age of 47 is also the oldest on record; in 1982, the typical journalist was 15 years younger.
So not only is every hack in the business trying to land a better job, but those hacks have the same class- and race-based prejudices of the policy makers they cover. Their shared upbringings and college educations condition them to believe that those in the political and business establishments—people just like them—are basically good people of good faith just trying to do their best. Sometimes this bias is implicit; other times it’s more obvious.
“Let me put my cards on the table,” explained Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, in a 2013 post on why he was troubled by Manning's revelation of state secrets. “At the end of the day, for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support… If you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this are purely destructive. They're attacks on something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.”
If you think that journalism is supposed to expose information that the powerful wish to keep hidden from public view, you are terribly naive, the responsible old men of DC say—an ideologue, that is, someone who does not accept that the system is basically fine. Publishing or even reporting on leaked documents is unethical, and those who leak evidence of war crimes should be treated as if they had leaked the nuclear launch codes.
The good news is that most of these journalists hate their lives. Less than a quarter of those surveyed said they were “very satisfied” with their jobs, compared with 49 percent in 1971. Newspapers are dying, newsrooms are downsizing, and the news outlets left standing are in the hands of a few rich people, which means if you lose your job for committing journalism at one outlet there aren't many competitors to which you can turn. What's left is a gaggle of stodgy old white men, their ranks replenished by those who can afford to be unpaid interns for months or even years, at the end of which time they will have learned to accept the narrow parameters within which their profession operates, aware that their freedom to choose a story is inversely related to their desire to have a long career.
Ultimately, a free press committed to exposing the truth cannot be owned by those who profit from its suppression. But in the absence of major structural changes, there are ways to make things better: Mainstream news outlets should diversify, both in terms of race and class, in order to benefit from reporters with different perspectives and life experiences—at the very least, that would decrease the odds of more good stories slipping through the filter.
All of this is not to pine for a “golden age” of journalism—in the 70s, newsrooms were even whiter and more bro-y than they are today, and 100 years before the media helped sell a war in Iraq, the most famous names in journalism helped sell a war with Spain. But unquestionably, the reporters and outlets willing to take big risks in the name of important stories are fewer and farther between than they were just a couple decades ago. It used to take a call from a senator or corporate executive to kill a story; these days, responsible journalists know to kill it themselves.
Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by Al Jazeera, Inter Press Service, the New Inquiry, and Salon.