08/06/2006 11:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A One-Sentence Critique of the Media (With Four Simple Suggestions)

Lakshmi Choudry's recent piece on anti-media "rage" (her word) from the left and right suggests that progressives know what they think is wrong with the media, but don't have a clear definition of the overall problem.

The Right's answer is simple: They're all liberal elitists. What's the underlying complaint from the Left?

Choudry writes: "Smart, perceptive, well-meaning bloggers can outline at length and in great detail the flaws in press coverage, but they can't say why the coverage is so fatally flawed." She quotes journalist/blogger Paul Waldman as saying ""I don't think the left has yet defined what its problem with the media is."

That hasn't been my experience. I think many progressive media critics know what they think is wrong with modern journalism. What they don't have is a sound bite, a lefty version of that snappy "liberal elitist" tag (although Eric Boehlert's book title, "Lapdogs," comes pretty close.)

I'm not going to try writing a 2-word condemnation of the press to compete with the Right's, but I can certainly state my critique in a single sentence. Here it is:

The press is too lazy and too fearful to do its job effectively, especially when the job requires them to challenge the Right.

It's not great, and it won't fill anybody's heart with "rage," but it's not bad - and it's all there. Let's go through each of the points:

First, here's what we mean by "lazy." When Joe Klein repeats the idea that there's a "hate America" wing of the Democratic Party, he's being intellectually lazy. He doesn't have any personal evidence to back it up, but he's heard it over and over again, and it sounds good - so he repeats it.

The same is true of Cokie Roberts when she says that a Lamont victory will be a "disaster" for the Democrats, because it will send a message to other senators that "the only smart thing to do here is play to your base."

This is actually a two-fer in the laziness department. First, she actually doesn't know that it will send that message - or at least she offers no supporting evidence that it will. Second, she has no idea whether "playing to your base" is "disaster" for a political party or not. It's worked pretty well for the Republicans, hasn't it? (I don't believe that's what a Lamont victory would "mean," but that's another topic.)

Both Klein and Roberts are parroting what they've heard other pundits say, because it's easier than coming up with original thoughts and insights - especially on a deadline. This sort of laziness compromises journalists and renders their opinions, more often than not, trivial and silly. The "punditry mantras" they repeat over and over (remember "Bush is likeable"?) assume a life of their own.

These mantras are usually created by spinmeisters for a specific political purpose - but laziness, not politics, motivates journalists to repeat them as fact.

There's another form of press laziness at play, too - the kind that says that shoe-leather investigative reporting is "hard, hard work," while accepting press releases from the Republican National Committee isn't quite as difficult. If you know in advance that hard work will bring you misery, while light work will make your life easier - well, which is a person more likely to do?

Which leads us to "fear." The Bush clique made it clear from the moment they assumed power that any aggressive investigative reporting would result in harsh punishment: freeze-outs on access, singling out press organs for public threat and ridicule (as was done recently with the New York Times), and refusal to answer their questions in White House briefings (a practice the press has shamefully allowed to continue - they should refuse to ask questions until the process is made fair.)

A hundred other harassments, major and petty, were also meted out - together with rewards for cooperative behavior and favorable coverage.

The press got the message quickly: Play ball, and we'll feed you nice photo ops and easy, predigested stories you only need to cut and paste to complete your day's work. Try to do your job more diligently, and we'll make your life a living hell - at every level from the beat reporter, to the editor-in-chief, to the publisher.

We can sit back and judge the media for their lack of courage. But to them, the people in power are bosses of a kind - and who doesn't sometimes do what a nasty boss tells them to do, rather than go through the trouble of fighting back? And when "the facts are biased," as Stephen Colbert observed, it's usually easier to avoid them - or report them only as the opinions of others.

Choudry suggests the left has no idea how to correct the problems of the press. She quotes blogger Christy Hardin Smith as saying, "I don't know where it's coming from, and I really don't know what it would take to support good journalism."

Supporting "good journalism" shouldn't be a "left" issue. (After all, Democrats may be in power again someday.) Here are four simple suggestions to get started:

1. Enforce the Journalist's Code of Ethics, which has already been written, and expand it to cover some areas which it doesn't address.
2. Write an Editor's and Publisher's Code of Ethics that's equally stringent.
3. Create a watchdog group comprised of journalists and editors that will cite reporters and editors for violations of the code.
4. Publicize those results as widely as the Pulitzer Prizes are published. In other words, degrade the quality of professional life for journalists whose laziness and fearfulness causes them to betray the public trust.

Some may say it's not much - but it's a start. The Society of Professional Journalists' code, while not perfect, would improve journalism considerably if it were practiced. "Identify sources wherever feasible," it says, and "always question sources" about their reason for anonymity. Its "Act Independently" section would embarrass many journalists, especially those who routinely accept "special treatment."

Washington Post "ombudsman" Deborah Howell (and others who have failed to protect the public's interest when entrusted to do so) should be forced to listed to its "Be Accountable" section one hundred times before breakfast.

People say that the problems with American journalism are so mystifying and so profound, that it's impossible to imagine a solution. That's just another example of lazy thinking. Journalists - and those who monitor them - can do better. Americans of all political stripes should insist on it.

A Night Light