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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