The demise of newspapers is a very bad thing, and anyone who thinks the Internet will quickly step up to fill the void is delusional. It's hard, for example, to envision even an influential national blog mustering the resources to uncover what The New York Times reports today about retired generals who serve as expert commentators on TV:Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.
The NYT didn't figure this out by sitting at home in front of the TV with a laptop and connecting dots. It went and sued the government at great expense to obtain and examine the actual evidence, and then it went out and interviewed a bunch of people.
Five years into the Iraq war, most details of the architecture and execution of the Pentagon's campaign have never been disclosed. But The Times successfully sued the Defense Department to gain access to 8,000 pages of e-mail messages, transcripts and records describing years of private briefings, trips to Iraq and Guantánamo and an extensive Pentagon talking points operation.
These records reveal a symbiotic relationship where the usual dividing lines between government and journalism have been obliterated.
Internal Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as "message force multipliers" or "surrogates" who could be counted on to deliver administration "themes and messages" to millions of Americans "in the form of their own opinions."
The Seattle Times did something similar a couple of years ago to put together its series "Your Courts, Their Secrets."King County judges have improperly sealed hundreds of court files. These records hold secrets of potential dangers in our medicine cabinets; of unethical lawyers and negligent doctors; of missteps by public agencies. We're going to court to open up those cases.
The paper had to employ lawyers to obtain records in another noteworthy investigative series, "Coaches who Prey." Oh, also in the series "License to Harm," about health-care workers who abuse patients. And "Victory and Ruins," about the criminal behavior of players on the 1990 Husky football team.
There are dozens of other examples involving Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer stories in which being able to muster legal muscle was necessary to get to the truth. I don't always agree with how those papers allocate their investigative resources — seems to me there are a lot of marginal stories that are pursued at the expense of high-profile, bigger-impact issues — but there's no arguing with their willingness to back up shoe leather with briefcase leather. Upstart media outlets are less able to do that. I know first hand from my years at Seattle Weekly and Crosscut. Some stories don't get reported because the righteous legal bills would be too great. Obtaining even routine public documents can cost a lot of money.
As big newspapers are less able to afford to cover even routine news, we risk losing the practice of high-impact journalism. Everyone should be concerned about this, and today's New York Times report is but the most recent reminder of what could be lost.