The worst media bias is toward access
I hope this piece serves as a fitting tribute to Michael Hastings, the journalist who died last week in a car crash. His most notable work, that of bringing about the downfall of Gen. Stanley McCrystal, came about because he refused to trade his duty to inform the public for continued access to power. He was 33, my age, and he accomplished much more than I ever have.
Members of the media are motivated by crusading zeal for justice, a drive to uncover the truth, a desire for a steady paycheck, and all of the rest of the things that drive people in various professions. But there is real bias in the media, and it isn’t toward one political party or another. The bias that drives the media is access.
Members of the media are beholden to sources in high positions for access. This biases them—consciously or otherwise—toward keeping that access. It doesn’t matter who is in power, and those kinds of biases often survive transitions of power. They can difficult to tease out. Things that seem like leaks—never forget that Judith Butler went to jail for information given to her on the orders of Dick Cheney, which was designed to strengthen the Bush Administration’s spurious case for war in Iraq—are actually disinformation campaigns designed to either distract the public’s attention or discredit a critic. And this holds true on more than just the national level. As a young reporter I was handed a confidential report that my source was leaking to discredit a rival, and it worked like a charm.
Some of that trading is all right, or at least in an ethical gray area. But because of the cozy relationship between the establishment press and the establishment itself, programs like the NSA’s massive spying program, PRISM, go unreported. And when they do get reported, journalists focus not just on discrediting the source of the leak—in Edward Snowden’s case, focusing on everything from his girlfriend to his supposed mental state to his lack of a college education—but even on the journalists who did the reporting. And so it was on Sunday, when David Gregory asked Glenn Greenwald on “Meet the Press” if Greenwald himself should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting treason.
The answer to this insane question is, of course, no. A free press is essential for the survival of a free society, and the idea of prosecuting a journalist for what he or she reported and wrote should repel anyone who holds the Constitution dear. But it shows exactly how deeply entrenched members of the media are with the establishment and the government.
And make no mistake: the NSA spying is not an ideological problem—its bipartisan support shows that—it is an establishment one. Once in power, a mindset of holding on to that power develops. And so it is with journalists. Once they have access to the halls of power, they want to retain that. Or rather, many of them do. Plenty are willing to work outside the power structure, and those are the ones, like Greenwald, who are doing the best work.
This isn’t a new problem. Hunter S. Thompson wrote an entire book covering politics because he thought the press was too beholden to the candidates and the establishment. Until more journalists take the tack of Greenwald and Hastings, the media will continue to serve poorly the interests of the U.S. people, and continue to fail in one of their primary duties: to hold those in power accountable.