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America’s Sleeping Watch Dog

I want to deviate from my usual economic theme this month and focus instead on the system by which the press – mostly the American press – covers government nowadays. But perhaps this is not too great a deviation, for the behavior of the press affects not only politics, but economics as well.

Consider an editorial written in March by the Washington Post’s editorial director, Fred Hiatt, in which he makes a very small and limited apology for the newspaper’s coverage and evaluation of the Bush administration. According to Hiatt, “We raised such issues” as whether the Bush administration had properly thought its proposed adventure in Iraq through, “but with insufficient force.” In other words, Hiatt finds fault with himself and his organization for saying the right thing, but not loudly enough.

Next, consider a comment by the former editor of the New York Times, Max Frankel, about how the Washington ecology of media leaks is healthy, because “most reporters do not just lazily regurgitate...leaks.” Instead, “they use them as wedges to pry out other secrets” and so oversee the government. The system may be “sloppy and breed confusion,” but “tolerating abusive leaks by government [that misinform] is the price that society has to pay for the benefit of receiving essential leaks about government.”

So, where Hiatt sees a press corps that was a little too cowardly about overseeing the Bush administration, Frankel sees a press corps where a sloppy and confusing process is nevertheless doing a reasonable job. I see a very different picture.