Saturday, April 15, 2006

Celebrity Journalism

Thomas Kunkel is a name that most Americans do not know, but he is one of the "thought leaders" in the world of journalism. Kunkel is the president of "American Journalism Review," a bi-monthly publication read by many senior leaders of media companies, as well as by thousands of reporters and editors and journalism school professors. It is published by the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where he is also dean. And for those not familiar with j-schools, Maryland's school of journalism is often rated one of the top schools in the nation, in part because it is one of the few major j-schools within commuting distance of Washington, D.C. There's a virtual "moving sidewalk" between College Park, Maryland, and Washington's L Street, where many press outfits have their offices.

Because of all this, I usually take a few minutes to read Kunkel's "Above The Fold" column in AJR, in part because he's become the "designated whiner" for the Washington media establishment. You can usually count on Kunkel to write about what the editors and celebrity reporters are talking about -- but don't dare write themselves for fear of blowing their now increasingly threadbare cover as "honest brokers" of information.

This month's column was no exception. Kunkel wrote about what he called "The Bush administration's penchant for secrecy," calling it a veritable "culture of secrecy." Kunkel offered as exhibit A the example of Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident. He took the vice president and the administration to task for not immediately disclosing the details of the accident. "Basically," Kunkel wrote, "the vice president's people sat on the story because they thought they could."

This is pure ideology, a logical "straw man" who collapses under his own weight. The truth is that it wasn't suppressed. It's true that the story wasn't spoonfed to the pool reporters in front of an evening-news-friendly backdrop. And it's true that the story wasn't accompanied with Administration-generated press releases and backgrounders, which allow the media darlings who cover the White House both file their stories and make their cocktail parties. (Or in the case of this story, make their "star turns" on the weekend talk shows.) But consider how the story did eventually come to light: a local reporter, not a part of the celebrity-ridden Capitol press gaggle, ended up breaking the story the way most good reporters break stories: by asking questions and being curious and having good sources.

In other words, this story was not suppressed, but neither was it spoon fed to the Washington illuminati in a way that gave them their normal, unfair competitive advantage. I believe the real source of the howls from the Washington media was the fact that in this particular case a local reporter scooped them. They were embarrassed, and instead of admit their shortcomings, they lashed out, became defensive, tried to re-direct.

The bottom line is that the media can't have it both ways: If they want to represent the American people in their role as watchdogs, they have to be truly independent. They have to leave both their personal ideologies and their personal ambitions at the door.

Kunkel's comments, defending these bad behaviors and toppling the straw man of "secrecy" and "suppression," suggests that he's worried about his cocktail party invitations drying up, too.