by Terry Michael
July 14, 2008

New Journalism

at The Washington Post

Pandering to the masses with the
12 (twelve!) part Chandra Levy series.

"The Chandra Levy case captivated the world."

You can see those breathless words for yourself if you navigate to a web page posted Friday, July 11 touting a 12-part series about a dead intern (yes, you read that correctly: twelve!), the first installment of which was plastered across the front page of the Post's Sunday print edition two days later.

Stop whatever you're doing and think about that.  Reporting staffs are being decimated all over the American daily newspaper landscape.  Seasoned journalists are being forced into early retirement buy-outs.  Hundred-year-old news values--objectivity, fairness, dispassion, fact-based arguments, proportionality--are being trashed in an infotainment media culture that dumbs down public discourse to verbal food fights, featuring talking-pointed-heads on cable "news" channels.

And the paper of record in the capital of the free world, a few miles up the road from where Jefferson and Madison understood the importance of the printed word to our experiment in liberty, has used its investigative and metro staff resources to publish a 12 part (twelve!!!) tabloid-style series pandering to the prurient interests of readers captivated by the unsolved murder of an intern.

Jesus probably needed 12 disciples to help him get the Word out.  God made do with ten commandments.  But why do the editors of The Washington Post require a dozen units of precious news hole space to investigate the sad demise of a young woman in Washington?

Could I suggest some other uses of that reporting talent?

Might those metro correspondents have made better use of their time looking into the deep culture of corruption that so obviously is festering in the District of Columbia government, where property taxpayers were bilked of tens of millions of dollars in a scam that had to involve scores of employees winking and nodding?  Or how about the $650,000 appropriation for needle exchanges, advocated earlier this year by our peripatetic young mayor.  Who's getting those contracts, financed by taxes paid by about 65 people like me, who each involuntarily donated roughly $10,000 in income, sales and property taxes to the District of Columbia in the past year?

Or, how about using those investigative correspondents to look into the hideous failure of our war on drugs, the 35th anniversary of which was celebrated a few weeks ago at the Drug Enforcement Administration.  The Post might have used the leg work and document explorations devoted to the death of an intern to question what we've gotten for those tens of billions thrown at neo-Prohibition.  (HBO's The Wire stepped in to explore that question, which obviously was too demanding for a news organization with murder mystery priorities.)

Here's another thought.  Next April, we come upon the 25th anniversary of a press conference held in Bethesda, heralding the discovery of the virus that was the "probable cause" of AIDS--a scientific feat performed at the National Institutes of Health without publication of a single peer-reviewed paper preceding the press release.  Could the Post's investigative team have set aside a little time to explore the anomalies that have piled so high from that hypothesis they might not actually be anomalous, but rather contradictions of a seriously flawed theory?

Make your own list.  Those are the favorites of this particular skeptic, with his 1969 bachelor's degree in journalism from the Univ. of Illinois.

I run a program to teach college journalists about politics.  My next class of 13 students arrives in Washington September 2 for four months of interning in news bureaus while they receive twice-weekly seminars about politics.

I just hope the Post's 12-part series is over before they get here, because I don't want them to see this "journalism" from the newspaper at which two young metro reporters helped bring down a corrupt administration several decades ago.

Director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, Terry Michael writes at his "libertarian Democrat" blog,


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