Burying the Lead

Originally posted: February 8, 2009

Greencastle, Ind. – On its front page report on former Senator Tom Daschle’s decision to withdraw his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the New York Times observed: “It was the rockiest day yet for the new White House.” Most news outlets, including public radio and television, presented the story along similar lines.

Framing the story in terms of a public uproar over Daschle’s unpaid taxes, and President Barack Obama’s subsequent admission that he “screwed up” his ethics reform initiative, is a great way to generate controversy and attract audiences.

But like so much that passes for vigorous reporting these days, this story generates more heat than light. Despite all the bluster, this latest episode exemplifies one of the fundamental problems with American journalism.

Consider the post-mortem on the failed Daschle appointment. Senate colleagues and political pundits alike lamented the fact that Daschle’s “mistakes” cost him a cabinet position. According to the conventional wisdom, Daschle’s legislative experience and expertise were “indispensable” to Obama’s health care reform agenda.

Not surprisingly, then, political insiders indicated that Daschle would have been confirmed in spite of the growing controversy. After all, this same rationale helped Timothy Geithner overcome far more egregious tax problems and secure his appointment as Treasury Secretary.

To be clear, Daschle’s tax problems were certainly newsworthy. But it is quite revealing that the former Senate minority leader’s problematic ties to the health care lobby received far less press scrutiny. This sort of “omission” is indicative of a phenomenon that media critic Ben Bagdikian succinctly describes as “Dig here, not there.”

Case in point: Daschle’s trouble with unpaid taxes, like those of Nancy Killefer, who withdrew her nomination for chief White House performance officer hours before Daschle dropped out, generated a media frenzy. However, their roles as well compensated “strategic consultants” for Washington lobbyists were routinely downplayed, if not ignored completely.

We can detect a similar pattern in press coverage during Timothy Geithner’s confirmation hearings. The press corps was all over his tax problems — and with good reason — but few news outlets examined his record as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

And yet, as Jeff Garth noted in ProPublica last month, “Geithner’s tenure at the New York Fed — which bore the major responsibility for supervising Citigroup — covers a tumultuous span in which the sprawling conglomerate spiraled from the country’s biggest banking company to one of its largest welfare cases.”

Rather than evaluate for themselves Geithner’s qualifications, the mainstream media was content to uncritically repeat the praise politicians and business leaders lavished on Geithner — despite a lackluster track record of oversight.

Shoddy journalism of this sort obscures the troubling relationship between the political class and business concerns: a mutually beneficial arrangement that enriches former public servants for their legislative acumen and political connections in exchange for public policy that favors corporate clients and habitually puts private interests ahead of the common good.

The news media’s myopic focus on individual misconduct conveniently ignores the broader systemic issues related to influence peddling in the nation’s capital. Press failures of this sort will only perpetuate the culture of corruption that precipitated the current economic crisis and may well undermine Obama’s good faith efforts to bring substantive change to Washington.

Obscuring the root causes of an increasingly dysfunctional democracy, second-rate journalism serves the interests of political and economic elites by distracting the populace with scandal, breeding public apathy and cynicism, and otherwise precluding the sort of bold thinking that perilous times like these demand.

Kevin Howley is an associate professor of communication at DePauw University.

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