Mainstream Journalism, RIP

[Cross-posted at Organizations and Markets]

Last week’s WSJ carried an op-ed from SEC Chair Christopher Cox, “We Need a Bailout Exit Strategy.” The op-ed was nothing special (mostly defending the SEC, of course, though there was a nice Hayekian line about “decentralized decision-making, in which millions of independent economic actors make judgments using their own money, [resulting] in the wisest allocation of scarce resources across our complex society”). What caught my eye was the headline, which suggests a connection between the bailout and the Iraq war, a connection I’ve been meaning to write about.

Remember how journalists felt deceived by the Bush Administration about the war? President Bush said that Saddam Hussein was a “grave and growing threat,” and the media repeated this line. Colin Powell showed pictures of the mobile weapons trailers and the New York Times reprinted them with enthusiasm. When the Administration’s claims proved false, the mea culpas began. Judith Miller resigned in disgrace. Never again, the media cried, will we be used as house propaganda organs. And yet, once the financial crisis began, the exact pattern was repeated. Bernanke and Paulson say there’s a “credit freeze,” that the financial sector is on the verge of collapse, that they alone know what to do—so that’s what the newspapers print. No time to investigate, to interview anyone outside the government, to hold these claims up to any critical scrutiny. If high officials say credit markets are frozen, that only “bold action” from the Treasury, the Fed, and Congress can prevent total meltdown, then that’s the way it is. Virtually every news report on the crisis followed the official script. It’s as if the financial reporters from the Times, the WSJ, the Washington Post, CNN, etc. were embedded with the Treasury. News reports have been little more than government press conferences. Shame, journalists, shame!

Why Oh Why, as Brad DeLong would say, can’t we have a press corps that investigates, rather than simply repeating what the government asserts?

Peter G. Klein is a Research Fellow, Associate Editor of The Independent Review, and Member of the Board of Advisors of the Center on Culture and Civil Society at the Independent Institute.
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