My original idea was to entitle this column “At last—success of the mainstream media.” How unlikely sounding that was, so it immediately appealed to my sense of finding dignity in unexpected places.
Alas, it’s not to be.
Let’s start at the beginning. Last month, a mainstream media reporter, Dana Priest of the Washington Post and a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, co-authored a major series in the Post called “Top Secret America.”
It was a remarkable three-day investigative series, essentially documenting the remarkable expansion of the homeland security empire and how the sprawling military industrial complex has exploded in Washington and throughout the rest of the country. Along with Post colleague William Arkin, Priest used public records and some old-fashioned shoe leather to document how the intelligence network has multiplied since 9/11—and not always to the advantage of American security.
The Post reporters documented some incredible facts:
That more than 1,200 government organizations and nearly 2,000 private companies work in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
That nearly 900,000 people now hold special security clearance.
And, most incredibly, that all these companies and all these security folks aren’t communicating with each other, and that warnings—such as the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 military workers dead—are going unheeded because of problems in communication.
Despite some criticism from the usual quarters (“You’re giving away our secrets,” some hollered), it was exactly what investigative reporting was supposed to do. It laid out a reality of how bureaucracies can balloon and feed upon themselves if they remain unchecked. Even more, it detailed a situation with enough complexity—and here’s another aspect of it I liked—that the talkmeisters on cable television couldn’t react in their usual talking point, knee-jerk way.
In other words: neither left nor right could rely on their talking points. Check it out. The right must have loved the examination of a bureaucracy out-of-control. That’s something for the tea partiers. And the left must have been happy that someone was blowing the whistle on a defense-related government-industry complex that the Dick Cheneys of the world would love.
In other words, no easy answers. So the series was discussed for a day or two and then the topic-of-the-day moved on. It’s so much easier to discuss the mosque in lower Manhattan or the bizarre rants of Dr. Laura. Reactions to the series have been subdued—and the issue seems already to have dropped out of the public arena.
Bruce Hoffman, a writer for the blog “The National Interest,” puts it this way: “To date, though, surprise at the existence of this vast, bloated empire has been greeted mostly by paralytic bewilderment coupled with the predictable vigorous defense from those agencies and departments, contractors and consultants who have benefited most from it.”
This response is depressing. My initial reaction was to celebrate the ability and the professionalism of the mainstream media at work. Priest and Arkin showed the power of investigative reporting. But the aftermath makes me wonder. Does anyone really care? What happens when a story can’t be distilled into a good soundbite for either Keith Olbermann or Glenn Beck?
Every now and again I enter “mainstream media” into a Google news search, and I have yet to come across a positive article. I thought, just maybe, that the “Top Secret America” series might give me ammunition to write such an article. I had remembered when Priest visited Santa Cruz back in 2006, when she offered a spirited defense of the mainstream media.
Speaking to a group honoring her for work, Priest cited her expose of secret CIA-sponsored prisons overseas—as well as the existence of the so-called “torture memo that authorized “enhanced interrogation. “ She said: “You would have none of this to think about without the mainstream media.”
Unfortunately, things have changed since 2006. Her Post series is worth celebrating, but my concern is that the work is disappearing, almost without a trace.
As a postscript, it’s worth mentioning that the “Top Secret America” is hardly an old-fashioned piece of journalism. It’s worth a journey to washingtonpost.com to see the wide variety of multimedia—video, maps, audio, charts and even blogs. The coordinated work of old time journalists and new-fangled multimedia journalists does, indeed, prove that the mainstream media still can produce some great work.
Writer Jon Katz once commented that looking at a newspaper website was like watching Lawrence Welk breakdancing. The Post disproves those words.