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June 23, 2013
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Has the Press Retreated from Its Watchdog Role?

Now that the surprise is over – the indignation registered, biographical details filled in, charges filed (first in secret, then, under pressure, released) – it’s possible to begin to think about the questions that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden raised by his act of civil disobedience.

“Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types,” he wrote in an online forum, in 2010, as reported earlier this month by The Washington Post. “Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop, or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?”

Here’s one small part of the overall puzzle worth discussing. The Patriot Act was signed into law in October 2001, six weeks after September 11 and anthrax attacks (it has been reauthorized twice).  The measure considerably broadened the Federal government’s abilities to conduct surveillance, especially electronic surveillance, and strengthened other security provisions.

Those dozen years are almost exactly the period during which the invention of search-based online advertising triggered an unprecedented revaluation of newspaper franchises. Major US newspapers were sold, many at prices far above the eventual bottom. Circulation declined, editorial staffs were cut, editorial decision-making re-oriented.  The industry, in other words, took a hell of a beating.

Have newspapers retreated from the watchdog role they assumed during their so-called “golden age” – the years from the end of World War II to the 9/11 attacks?

The Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath is a case worth thinking about.

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You remember the details.  The shocking bombing on Monday, followed by two days of confusion as photo analysis proceeded behind the scenes, the case quickly cracked on Thursday, once photos of the suspects were released. Then the murder of an MIT policeman, a carjacking, a gun battle in which one of the suspects was killed. Then the lockdown Friday, with the surviving suspect located minutes after the “shelter in safety” order was lifted.

Many questions were voiced privately about police tactics in those first few days. The photos of the suspects were released only after the authorities’ hand was forced when the New York Post published photographs of a wrong pair. The logic of the lockdown was questioned when the suspect was captured as quickly as it was relaxed.  One officer was nearly killed by “friendly fire;” the surviving suspect may have been wounded and could have been killed when another officer fired a nervous burst during the surrender – about what you’d expect after the callous murder of a fellow officer, but noteworthy nevertheless.

Boston is fortunate to be a two newspaper town. It has two very good public radio news operations as well.

There were a handful of critical columns and comments in the days just after the event, most of them from out of town – Rachelle Cohen in the Boston Herald, Ross Douthat of The New York Times on his blog in, Justin Davidson in New York magazine, Chemi Salev in Ha’aretz, and EP – and one dismissing such “Monday-morning quarterbacking,” by the Boston Globe’s national security columnist Juliet Kayyem. But otherwise only three pieces have appeared in the Boston papers that attempted to get behind official attempt to contain the threat.

Hillary Chabot of the Herald wrote a coy one the next day about a New York security consultant who called the decision to shut down seven communities in the Boston area has been “brilliant.”  In a sidebar, she and another reporter noted “The entire MBTA was shut down until early last night, leaving residents panicked and stir-crazy.”  (Sorry, Herald clips cast $3.95 apiece)

A week later. A Globe editorial dispassionately noted the various questions that had arisen and called on Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to appoint an independent panel to analyze police procedures during the search. (It was Patrick who made the key decisions, beginning with putting the FBI in charge.)    But the item appeared in the little-read Saturday paper, and, as far as I can tell, has been completely ignored.

Then a Herald story, ten days ago, reported for the first time some details of what it called the “controversial” Greater Boston lockdown – based on an hour-long question-and answer session when Gov. Patrick was the guest of a Cambridge software marketing firm.

It turns out that that the president of the United States himself called to say that the lockdown couldn’t continue.  (“In the afternoon I went back to the offices at the State House… and I took a nap. [Then] the phone rang. It was the president…And he said, ‘Deval, I’m briefed. … What are you going to do about the city? You can’t keep it locked down indefinitely.’ I said, ‘Mr. President, I know that. … I’m trying to sort that out now.’  … Basically the state police had said that we should end this … when we finish the door-to-door in Watertown. So if we haven’t found him, we should say to people, ‘Look, live your lives, but please be careful because he’s still at large.’ … Look, the reason why it worked out in the end is because we found him. If we didn’t find him then people would be bitching and moaning about how we kept them indoors all day.”) The next day, Saturday, the governor retreated to his country home in the Berkshires, ate dinner by himself with a book in a West Stockbridge restaurant and, by his own account, got “quite drunk” by the end of the meal.

There must be all kinds of reasons that the response to the Marathon bombing took the form that it did. For instance, Gov. Patrick was coming off a very good call in February when he ordered traffic off the streets for a day as a snowstorm bore down on the state.  Boston Mayor Thomas Menino had just suffered a broken leg.  And it may be that Richard DesLauriers, 53, who supervised the search as head of the Boston FBI, had been planning to leave all along, as he said in announcing earlier this month that he in July would become head of security for Penske Corp, a trucking company headquartered in Michigan.  But so far, you’d have to say that the Boston newspapers have displayed a surprising lack of curiosity about the decision-making in April, and the conclusions that have been drawn since by various parties.

Newspapering in Boston is in transition, with the New York Times Co. preparing to sell the Globe for something like a tenth of what it paid for it twenty years ago.  The Herald though it has sold its building and its presses and now contracts with the Globe to print its editions, remains a feisty presence in the town.  Meanwhile, a Globe team is said to be writing a book about the bombing.

But quickie books are no substitute for daily coverage, at least as long as it is newspapers you are trying to sell.  In the contrast between that Globe editorial in April, a reminder of the days when editorial pages had brawn as well as brains, and the paper’s strange reluctance otherwise to ask hard questions about the response to the bombing, can be glimpsed all the difference between newspapers yesterday and today.

What’s wanted now is a recipe with which newspapers can once again thrive in the future. Yes, The Guardian broke the NSA story, in competition with The Washington PostThe New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have done good jobs of filling in around the edges. The national papers are in pretty good shape, despite what you hear.  But national papers need strong regional newspapers, just as major league sports require minor league echelons to teach their games to players and audiences alike. For that reason, too, the story of the response to the Boston Marathon bombing is worth following.  But the really interesting question here is the one that has been raised by Edward Snowden.

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One Comment

  1. Dave Backus @ NYU wrote:

    Great piece. Two related items:
    * When Fujimori’s henchman kept track of payments, the media were the most valuable.
    * In the Lance Armstrong case, my understanding is that the journalistic work was done outside the major media outlets.
    So yes, we need a vibrant, competitive media. How we get it, hard to say.

    Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 12:01 am | Permalink

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