Journalists in Love with Themselves

Journalists aren't the hard-charging watchdogs of government that they claim to be, and the romantic notion of reporters saving our democracy is fiction, says Jack Shafer in Slate.

Newspaper people have enormous egos, if you get my drift, and don't mind massaging the big hairy things in public. Yet the press is hardly the sentry and bulwark of society that reporters imagine it to be. I don't mean to disparage reporters who put their lives on the line to file from Iraq, nor the sleuths who sift through databases to uncover wrongdoing by pharmaceutical companies, or any other enterprising reporter. But too many journalists who wave the investigative banner merely act as the conduit for other people's probing, as George Washington University professor and former investigative journalist Mark Feldstein suggests in a paper-in-progress titled "Ventriloquist or Dummy?"

Feldstein cites a 1992 piece by the late Christopher Georges in the Washington Monthly to illustrate his thesis. Georges reviewed about 800 articles by investigative reporters from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times published over three years and found that "nearly 85 percent of them have been follow-ups or advances of leaked or published government reports." Georges' study is anecdotal since his piece did not name the stories analyzed or describe his methodology, but my hunch is that his conclusions aren't far from the truth.

As Feldstein writes, there's nothing inherently wrong with investigative journalists throwing the spotlight on government reports as part of their mission, as long as the information is accurate and the journalists aren't being spun. But it subtracts from the journalists' self-images as tireless messengers of truth turning millions of pages at the courthouse or the SEC.

"Hitching ourselves to government investigators' bandwagons does more than make us lazy; it leaves us—and the rest of America—thinking falsely that we are looking where the government isn't," Georges wrote. Feldstein adds this codicil: "[I]f investigative reporters can really be turned into something akin to ventriloquist dummies, how independent can other journalists really be?"