Post-accountability govt: way down in the hole

March 2, 2009

How many times have you read demo­cracy will suf­fer without journ­al­ism to keep it hon­est? I gave up count­ing a long time ago. But the most power­ful anec­dot­al (of course!) refor­mu­la­tion of this hoary nos­trum comes from Dav­id Simon in the Wash­ing­ton Post.

In the course of rail­ing against a ‘cov­er-up’ in the Bal­timore Police Depart­ment, Simon describes his former role as a police report­er nego­ti­at­ing the insti­tu­tion­al ant­ag­on­ism (checks and bal­ances?) between the bench of the Mary­land Dis­trict Court and the Bal­timore PD.

That nego­ti­ation relied on Simon hav­ing the veiled threat of a judge’s home num­ber. As he wrote: “To be a police report­er in such a cli­mate was to be a prince of the city…”

But that nego­ti­ation — that ‘prin­cip­al­ity’ — relied on a tri-partite rela­tion­ship between a par­tic­u­lar judge and a par­tic­u­lar report­er and the Bal­timore PD.

Simon’s vent ends in great style:

Half-truths, obfus­ca­tions and appar­ent deceit — these are the wages of a world in which news­pa­pers, their staffs evis­cer­ated, no longer battle at the fron­ti­ers of pub­lic inform­a­tion…

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dino­saur that is the daily news­pa­per. So-called cit­izen journ­al­ists and blog­gers and media pun­dits have lined up to tell us that news­pa­pers are dying but that the news busi­ness will endure, that this moment is less tra­gic than it is trans­form­a­tion­al.

Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blog­ger try­ing to find out […]. Nor were any cit­izen journ­al­ists at the City Coun­cil hear­ing in Janu­ary when police offi­cials […]. And there wasn’t any­one work­ing sources in the police depart­ment to coun­ter­bal­ance all of the spin or omis­sion.

I didn’t trip over a herd of hungry Sun report­ers either, but that’s the point. In an Amer­ic­an city, a police officer with the author­ity to take human life can now do so in the shad­ows, while his high­er-ups can claim that this is neces­sary not to avoid pub­lic account­ab­il­ity, but to mit­ig­ate against a nonex­ist­ent wave of threats. And the last remain­ing daily news­pa­per in town no longer has the man­power, the expert­ise or the insti­tu­tion­al memory to chal­lenge any of it.

And the solu­tion? Don’t look to a guy who writes drama to provide answers. And yet Simon’s answer is there in his piece: turn back the block; rein­vent the rela­tion­ships (like my rela­tion­ship).

When we look at the decline of news­pa­per report­ing staffs, par­tic­u­larly in the United States, the ques­tion is not how do we go back twenty years, or ‘pre­serve’ news­pa­pers, or even their sup­posed core ‘watch­dog’ func­tion.

The broad­er polit­ic­al ques­tion is how do we ensure exec­ut­ive account­ab­il­ity without a news media? For that day has well and truly dawned. And really, the prob­lem is less defined by the major suc­cesses of that account­ab­il­ity (pre­cious few, when you come to look at it), and more by the minor fears of minor pub­lic ser­vants “get­ting found out.”

And if you wondered what that post-account­ab­il­ity world looks like, go no fur­ther than the blog of Brit­ish Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, Lynne Feath­er­stone:

[T]here’s a whole host of areas where there is very little report­ing or com­ment­ary. Loc­al coun­cils are the clas­sic example — fre­quently the loc­al media barely report them, and even in those areas blessed with both high read­er­ship loc­al news­pa­pers and news­pa­pers which cov­er the coun­cil in some detail, it’s often only one title — and so the cov­er­age is very much in the whim of the edit­or or own­er. It may mean they are always anti one par­tic­u­lar party, or it may be that they are always anti the coun­cil…

If you take my own home patch of Haringey — it’s been a coun­cil with more than its fair share of scan­dals and tra­gedies over the years, but it’s also been excep­tion­ally rare for any of the loc­al news­pa­pers to have broken news based on invest­ig­at­ive report­ing.

Is it just the Brits? Even the optim­ist­ic Jeff Jar­vis in Who’ll Cov­er The State doesn’t have a plan:

I don’t have a buttoned-up plan to replace the cov­er­age of news­pa­per state­house bur­eaus. But it’s already true that they are shrink­ing and so rather than just com­plain­ing about that — and point­ing out for the Nth time that blog­gers won’t replace their head­count — we need to look at how the func­tions of cov­er­ing state gov­ern­ment can be ful­filled in new ways.

My view? Rela­tion­ships are in flux. They will reform. But polit­ics is suf­fer­ing from a geo­graph­ic­al crisis as pro­found as journalism’s.

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