02/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Experts: Journalists Keep Government Honest, Sort Of

Columbia Journalism Review has a piece today about a study undertaken by James Snyder Jr. of MIT and David Strömberg of Stockholm University, which purports to answer an important question: is it true that journalism "keeps government honest?" The results are fascinating! But they don't really answer the central question.

First, the fascinating bit:

Journalists, they say, kick-start a virtuous cycle by covering politics, which educates voters, who in turn put pressure on politicians, who then work harder and produce more constituent-friendly policies. House of Representatives members who aren't scrutinized by hometown reporters, Snyder and Strömberg find, work less for their constituencies--they testify at fewer hearings, serve on fewer committees, and vote more often along party lines. As a result, federal policy tends to break unfavorably for their constituents, and federal spending is lower in their districts. When politicians do receive coverage, they offer testimony at almost 50 percent more congressional hearings and slice off 10 percent more pork for their districts--roughly $2,700 a person--than colleagues the press ignores.

So, the harsh glare of the journalist eye burns bright enough for its subjects to be aware of it, and they work harder as a result. But do they work better? Or more "honestly?" That's something that the study can't really conclude. And since the end result of the scrutiny means more pork for the home district, does this mean good things for the nation? Not really:

That congressmen work harder when covered by newspapers might be good for locals, but it doesn't necessarily translate into benefits for the country at large. After all, eager politicians don't necessarily come from the neediest districts, and those districts that do get federal dollars may not use them wisely--think Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere." Snyder and Strömberg, sensitive to this distinction, do not claim that newspaper coverage focused on Congress makes the country better, only that it increases the chances that representatives will help constituents back home.

There's a worthwhile point in there about how the declining fortunes of print media is leaving certain holes that television news isn't filling ("Snyder and Strömberg, corroborating past studies, find that television has "no effect" on voter knowledge about their congressmen"). The big takeaway, I suppose, is that with greater uniformity of coverage, the machinery of public policy might settle into some sort of balance.

I can help but notice, however, that this study more or less manages to demonstrate that the press seems successful mainly in inspiring a cycle of "busy-work." Scrutiny leads to more pork, which leads to "favorable" coverage of that pork locally, which inspires the public to keep signing up for more of the same. All this means is that the press is uniquely geared toward capturing activity, rather than achievement.

And anyone who watched national news knows this too well. For example, the press has built themselves a nice little narrative on the stimulus bill that centers on a report from the Congressional Budget Office. That report, though, does not exist. Another narrative that's emerged over the closing of Guantanamo Bay, tells of sixty-one former prisoners who have "returned to the battlefield." That number is just made up out of whole cloth. In either case, all it takes is source verification to determine the truth, but that, I suppose, would fall under the category of "achievement," and anyway, after a day, everyone can just cite everybody else. It's just like Bernard Madoff drew it up!

Meanwhile, the press did a fantastic job nailing down the truth over whether the music played at the Inauguration was live or recorded! I bet that news, plus a fifth of bourbon, helps you sleep better at night.