With huge financial scandals causing turmoil in the United States, this year has seen some vigorous reporting about high-level misdeeds and corporate manipulation. But many news stories just take the lead from top officials. In the months ahead, we'll find out how deep American media outlets are willing to go.
Big scandals always generate plenty of headlines and lots of excitement. Important information can emerge. But frequently, key facts remain buried and crucial questions go unasked. If it's true that reporters produce a first draft of history, they often serve as conformist "jiffy historians" who do little more than recycle the day's conventional wisdom.
A dozen years ago, when journalist Martin A. Lee and I were writing a book about media bias ("Unreliable Sources"), we tried to assess what had gone wrong with news coverage of the Iran-contra scandal. Along the way — under the heading of "Signs of an Official Scandal" — we listed some general characteristics of coverage routinely providing much more heat than light.
Today, it may be useful to consider how some "signs of an official scandal" apply to media treatment of the current uproar shaking Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue:
"The scandal comes to light much later than it could have to prevent serious harm."
"The focus is on scapegoats and fall guys, as though remedial action amounts to handing the public a few heads on a platter."
Hours after USA Today reported on its front page last Wednesday that "the search for big-time fall guys in the recent corporate debacles could be a long one," former Adelphia Communications CEO John Rigas, two sons and a pair of other execs at the firm were under arrest. A delighted White House spinner, Ari Fleischer, called the action "a clear sign of this administration's commitment to enforce the laws so justice can be done."
"Damage control keeps the media barking but at bay. The press is so busy chewing on scraps near the outer perimeter that it stays away from the chicken house."
Too soon to tell. Some reporters and pundits have been gnawing on Wall Street scamster-turned-regulator Harvey Pitt, and the SEC chairman may soon find himself ceremoniously tossed over the White House fence onto the sidewalk. We'll see whether such scraps will satisfy the hungers of the Washington press corps.
"Sources on the inside supply tidbits of information to steer reporters in certain directions — and away from others. With the media dashing through the woods, these sources keep pointing: 'The scandal went that-a-way!'"
Beyond all the partisan salvos, basic conflicts exist between corporate power and potential democracy. The news media have not yet clearly defined the scope of the current scandal or its implications.
"The spotlight is on outraged officials ... asking tough questions. (But not too tough.) As time passes, politicians and/or the judicial system take the lead in guiding media coverage."
But this scandal is unusually volatile because many millions of employees and retirees-to-be are furious that corporations have methodically ripped them off. News media are spotlighting their predicaments and justifiable anger. Officialdom may find that the usual media-manipulation techniques are inadequate to co-opt the growing rage at the grassroots.
"Despite all the hand-wringing, the press avoids basic questions that challenge institutional power and not just a few powerful individuals."
Yes, some former private-sector heroes are becoming prime-time villains. And in Washington, after flak-catching functionary Pitt gets tossed overboard or decides that he must spend more time with his family, the ex-captain of (the U$$) Halliburton is likely to face increased pressure as more becomes known about Dick Cheney's former lucrative role as head of that particular books-cooking firm.
But the nonstop flood of corporate money into the coffers of the two major parties has not slowed. And while the latest "official scandal" shows no indication of abating anytime soon, there's still a shortage of high-profile reporting on the nation's extreme disparities of power.
In this scandalous era, savvy operatives like Pitt are expendable. So are any politicians — including Machiavellian string-pullers like Cheney and princely marionettes like George W. Bush. While journalists may feel empowered to focus on greedy individuals who excel at deception, now is also a good time to explore options for fundamentally changing an entrenched system that remains hostile to economic justice.