Institutions of Democracy and the Public Good
Our panel this morning has two parts. On the one side, we have Judge Diane Wood, Governor Phil Bredesen, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, each of whom will comment on challenges facing American institutions, including the judiciary, our political process and government in general, and American diplomacy and the military. On the other side, Judy Woodruff, Alex Jones, and Marty Baron – each a distinguished member of the press – will discuss challenges for American journalism, whether in print, on-air, or online.
We have decided to bring all the panelists together as one group because many of the challenges faced by one side either overlap or interact with challenges on the other. After we hear from the first group of panelists, we will invite observations from those who are part of our mass media. We will then turn to a direct discussion of media and journalism, after which those from the first group, who themselves are affected by the coverage and the nature of the media, will be given a chance to comment.
We have a remarkable group of panelists. Diane Wood, who is a federal judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, also has a long and distinguished career as a law professor, which she continues in addition to her judgeship. Phil Bredesen, a problem-solving, popular, and successful former governor of Tennessee, was before that a problem-solving, popular mayor of Nashville. Karl Eikenberry, now at Stanford University, was U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan during one of the most challenging times for the nation and the world. He also served for thirty-five years in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant General. Alex Jones, who heads the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, has had a long career in journalism and has authored several marvelous books based on his work at The New York Times and other places. Judy Woodruff is known to many of us for her work as a television news anchor, currently at PBS NewsHour. I met Judy in 1976, when she came from Atlanta to cover what was then an obscure campaign by a governor named Jimmy Carter. She moved on to a career in journalism that is one of the most respected in our time, especially in the area of broadcast journalism. And Marty Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, has had a distinguished career with a variety of newspapers, including The Miami Herald, where he also served as editor; The New York Times; and Los Angeles Times.
The United States always faces challenges, but they are particularly acute now. They are not just fiscal challenges, but social challenges as well. They are about whether we can create a vibrant workforce for the future, given an economy that is not recovering very easily from deep downturns caused by recent financial crises. They are about immigration and about whether we can integrate into the population a substantial group of people, many of whom have been in the United States for decades but have been here illegally. They are about how to deal with an aging society, in which people are not just getting older but living longer.
In the forty-three years that I have been immersed in Washington politics, from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, I have never seen things as dysfunctional as they are now. The kind of political system that the framers created was not designed to be smooth and easy; it was meant to be contentious and difficult. But today the level of polarization, partisan and ideological, is of a very different character than when I first arrived in Washington in 1969. Divisions then were over the Vietnam War, but they were not along strict party lines. Some of the strongest supporters of President Nixon’s approach to Vietnam were conservative Democrats, mostly from the South; and some of the most ardent opponents were moderate Republicans, like Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Jack Javits of New York. Before Vietnam, there had been deep divisions over civil rights. Those who have read Robert Caro’s masterful works on this subject will know that while Lyndon Johnson was a great national hero, progress on civil rights never could have been made without prominent Republicans, like Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Bill McCulloch of Ohio, who fought against conventional wisdom in their own party to make those things happen. The strongest opponents of moving forward on civil rights were, again, conservative Democrats in the South.
The parties now are much more unified. There is no longer a center, a prominent and vibrant part of the progress seen in earlier eras. The parties are vehemently oppositional, which would work just fine if we had a parliamentary system or parliamentary culture–but we have neither. In a parliamentary culture, where a majority acts and the minority vociferously opposes, everyone accepts the legitimacy of those actions. In our system, when a majority acts over the vehement, unified opposition of a minority, half the country sees those actions as illegitimate, and consistent efforts are made to delegitimize them. We saw a lot of that in the first two years of the Obama administration, but it was mild compared to what we have had the last two: a system of divided government, because of the separation of powers, with a minority party that votes in unison, leading to near gridlock. That is no easy – or good – way to run a political system.
If that were the only set of problems, we might be able to weather them, but it is clear that some of the polarization is more than partisan or ideological; it’s now tribal. You can imagine many areas where we could find common ground and come together across ideological and party lines: think of the Simpson-Bowles Commission or the Rivlin-Domenici Commission. But in a tribal atmosphere, where it is not about what the ideas are, but rather who is expressing them (“if you’re for them, we’re against them”), you run into a larger problem. And this problem is not limited to Congress. It has metastasized out to many states and has begun to infect other institutions, including the judiciary. Indeed, it has begun to move into the general public as well.
We must add to this problem another element of our culture, populism, which is built into the DNA of America. Our framers looked at government and at the accumulation of power in institutions with a jaundiced eye, and Americans have grown up with that mindset. It is a strength of our system that we do not automatically convey enormous power to individuals or groups, which can lead to tyranny. However, populism emerges full-blown whenever there are economic difficulties, and it then moves out to other institutions beyond the governing ones. Right now, we have a crisis of confidence and legitimacy across almost all our major institutions, partly driven by scandals – whether in religion or education or sports – that taint our view of leaders. Other than the military, no institution has faced scandal yet still enjoys a great deal of confidence from the American people. This situation makes it difficult to reach consensus or make decisions with broad bipartisan support.
We can overcome some of the difficulties that are endemic in the political process if we have leaders that Americans can trust, leaders from outside the fray who provide some of the glue to hold things together. But without them and without that kind of leadership, it becomes even harder to act because action means requiring people to accept policies that may involve short-term pain for the promise, often ephemeral, of a longer-term gain.
Asking these things of the American people has become more difficult in the wake of developments such as the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court held that you cannot have corruption if political contributions are independent of campaigns or candidates. However, the SpeechNow, decision made by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals soon after Citizens United, blew a hole through the notion of independence. The combined effect of these rulings has intensified concerns over judicial elections. While it may take a lot of money to influence a presidential election or a Senate campaign, it does not take a whole lot of money to sway a judicial election.
Direct challenges to judges began in Iowa over the issue of same-sex marriage, but the problem has spread to Texas and many other states. The New York Times recently ran an editorial about Americans for Prosperity, a group formed by David and Charles Koch that has been very active with regard to judicial elections. In Florida, the group is targeting three state supreme court judges who are up for retention. Florida’s governor has promised that if the judges are removed, his picks to replace them will have very different viewpoints. I just came from Kansas, where a judge has been targeted. Americans for Prosperity has also focused on state legislatures, trying to remove moderate Republicans and replace them with more conservative Republicans.
As recently as the 2009 Caperton case, involving a mining company’s attempts to influence a judicial election in West Virginia, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that he was appalled by the idea. Now, post-Citizens United, we see massive efforts to have money change state and municipal judicial elections.
Judge Wood, could you reflect on what this means and whether there is anything good about it.
I find very little good about it. The Caperton case involved a state supreme court judge who received $3 million (you can decide for yourself whether that’s a big or small number) from a company that had been handed a $50 million judgment against itself. That judgment was on appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that this transgressed the fundamental principle that judges are supposed to be independent. The Court held that the judge who received the money should have recused himself.
So that’s one thread of this, but I want to throw in a second one. In 2002, the Supreme Court decided a case, Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, in which it held unconstitutional a state canon of judicial conduct that forbade candidates for judicial office from announcing their views on disputed issues.
The Court said that the restriction was not permissible because it violated various free speech rights. Now we have Citizens United, which indicates that judicial elections are like all other elections.
I have spent a lot of time traveling the world, talking to foreign colleagues about how important it is to have an independent judiciary: a body of people who decide cases objectively and who are not dependent on campaign money, or bribes, or other kinds of financial contributions. Citizens United does not seem to be a recipe for that independence and objectivity.
Moreover, the judiciary is a different kind of institution. Judges are not legislators in black robes. They are charged with doing something different, which is to decide what the law dictates in a particular instance, or maybe to measure a statute against the Constitution to see if it passes muster. Recent trends may lead the public to believe that judges are not sticking to that task – and may lead judges themselves not to do so. For example, there are some troublesome statistics about the length of criminal sentences meted out by state elected judges in the period leading up to an election. That should cause all of us to be very concerned.
Governor Bredesen, you served at a time when, at least in your state of Tennessee, the focus on problem-solving transcended some of the partisan differences. You were a Democratic governor in a state with a significant Republican coloration. As you look at Tennessee today and talk to your former colleagues, how much do you think the polarization and tribalization that I talked about has metastasized out to the states?
There is no question that some of it has moved out into the states. The polarization in Tennessee is not as strong but is growing steadily. I served for eight years, the last four of which were starting to move toward what Washington has become. The first four, though, were not. I managed to get all my budgets passed – including the last one, which was a very tough budget – with substantial majorities on both sides of the aisle.
What I see happening now is different; maybe it’s the precursor to extreme polarization. Many states today seem to have embraced a strong reactionary trend. In Tennessee alone, we have recently seen the introduction of bills to make sure that Sharia law never becomes law in the state. We attempted to establish our own currency, so that when the federal government collapsed, we would be ready. And there must have been a template going around for “guns in [fill in the blank],” because innumerable such bills were filed.
It is important not to let this devolve into hand-wringing: “The barbarians are sacking Washington! What are we going to do?” The reality is that this kind of reaction is always with us; it’s a facet of our psyche in this country. For a long time, we had political leaders from both parties who were good at managing it. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy, who saw themselves as 52 percent presidents, understood that part of their job was to manage these other forces in society. That has been much less true of recent presidents. Neither Reagan nor Clinton (at least not in his first term) nor George W. Bush was like that. They all thought of themselves as 60 percent presidents. And Obama so far has continued the pattern.
Managing these other social forces is part of being a leader in a democracy like ours. When we consider the reasons for our problems, we may want to start by asking not only how our institutions have failed to provide what so many citizens apparently want, but also how our political leaders have failed in this task of managing these unruly impulses. I mentioned the idea that some people are lamenting that the barbarians are sacking Washington. The barbarians, though, are always out there. They sacked Rome because Rome eventually made it possible for them to do so. Don’t blame the barbarians, blame Rome. So we must ask: what is it about our institutions that is not meeting the needs of people, and therefore allowing these forces to come into play?
You raise a good point that I think we will come back to on some level. What happens when voters are extremely unhappy with the state of things and are looking for people to hold accountable? Unlike in a parliamentary system, they do not have an easy way of figuring out who to hold accountable; and even when they do, given the system we have, it may not make much of a difference.
However, let me divert from this for a bit to talk about the one institution that seems to have that larger level of respect: the U.S. military. Every year, I visit the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I come away feeling so good about the experience, in part because of what I see in terms of how they are training the next generation of military leaders. The focus is not simply on making war, but on stepping back and looking at larger societal and historical perspectives. There is a conscious effort to place the military within the civil society.
In your experience, Ambassador Eikenberry, how much does that help explain why people view military leadership and our troops in a different light than other institutions, and also in a very different light than we did twenty-five years ago?
Every year, Gallup polls show that the U.S. military is rated by the American people as one of our nation’s most respected institutions. In 2011, 78 percent of Americans indicated that they had a great amount of confidence in the military. (Second was small business, at 64 percent.) Compare this to Congress, whose rating has been going down in recent years and is now at 12 percent. U.S. military: 78 percent; Congress: 12 percent. What explains this difference?
I believe there are three reasons. First, the military is looked at as the institution that provides the shield for the American people. The United States is a global power, and our military is doing very difficult things every day in far-off places. So it gets rightful credit for that. Second, if we look at who is coming out of today’s military, we see men and women who have learned standards and discipline and who have received a high degree of technical training and quality education. The leadership and management skills that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines develop while serving are highly valued. And third, the military is seen as a repository of American values. At a time when we have lost confidence in many of our institutions, the military helps satisfy our need to reclaim some ill-defined “American values” of the past. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their 2011 book That Used To Be Us, talk about how, before the game begins at some sporting events in the United States, there is a spotlight put on a group of soldiers. They argue that it is almost as if a spotlight is being put on an American museum, something that has been lost.
Having said this, I’ll mention three concerns. First, the U.S. military is an extraordinarily expensive enterprise. Our defense budget dwarfs that of any other nation; indeed, it is larger than the next ten biggest defense spenders combined. Forty-five percent of global defense spending is by the U.S. military. That level of expenditure should lead us to revisit President Eisenhower’s concern about the military-industrial complex. Make no mistake, there is huge corporate interest behind the U.S. military, as well as huge political interest. A second concern is the unintended consequences that arise from the frequent use of our military. It is a powerful institution with great capabilities, and thus we employ it frequently. But that has consequences in terms of foreign policy, international reputation, and the welfare of our forces. My third concern involves the political ownership and accountability of our armed forces. For many years now, we have had an all-volunteer force, not a conscript force. Are the bonds between our military and the American people being frayed as a result? As I walk through airports, I will often see an American citizen stop a uniformed American soldier, shake his hand, and thank him for his service. Sometimes I wonder if the subtext is “thank you for making it possible for me not to serve.”
Dexter Filkins, previously of The New York Times and now at The New Yorker, has done some first-class reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was interviewed by NPR after the publication of an especially powerful piece he wrote about where we are headed in Afghanistan. He was asked, “Why is it, with all the money we’ve spent in Afghanistan, that we aren’t getting better results?” He paused and then replied, “Well, you have to consider that in a place like Afghanistan, when we’re trying to do development work or military work, it’s like building an outpost on the moon.” We would of course admire any force — volunteer or draft — trying to build an outpost on the moon. But I would argue that it is only because we have a volunteer force that harder questions are not being asked — such as, why are we trying to build an outpost on the moon in the first place?
A series of sex scandals has recently reverberated through the military academies and other places. In the past, we have had questions about misuse of funds and bloated budgets. As we go through our current period of fiscal retrenchment, there are questions about whether military spending entails taking money away from other things. Might the American people have a different reaction to the military once the wars end and people have time to reflect? Our enormous respect for the military relative to other institutions has not been consistent throughout the nation’s history. We have witnessed hostility and backlash before. Do you see any signs that we might go from a 78 percent approval rating to a somewhat lower figure? How significant is it to people within the military to have this strong standing with the American public?
Two points about what is going wrong. The first involves the issue of oversight: that is, congressional oversight of the military as well as the media’s role in examining our military in order to bring problems to light. I would reiterate that some of the problem here relates to the disconnect between the volunteer force and the greater society. For example, in the last year, more than fifty American and coalition (NATO) soldiers have been murdered by their purported allies from the Afghan army and police forces. To date, there has been no serious congressional hearing on the topic. Let’s suppose that a draft army could do in Afghanistan what the volunteer force is doing. If we had a draft army there and there had been more than fifty American and NATO soldiers dead at the hands of Afghan soldiers and policemen, wouldn’t there have been a congressional hearing by now? Wouldn’t the American people have demanded a hearing?
My second point has to do with accountability within the military. The wars we are fighting right now are the kind that may drag on for many years. They are also wars taking place in the context of 24/7 communications, where anyone with an iPhone can capture something that in the past probably never would have been widely shared or remarked upon. We are in a new era in terms of accountability of our senior leadership. General Charles Krulak, the Commandant of the Marine Corps in the late 1990s, wrote an article called “The Strategic Corporal.” He argued that in today’s world, the misconduct of a corporal — a junior, noncommissioned officer — could have strategic consequences for a military campaign. Think about the recent example of an American sergeant who reportedly went outside his forward operating base and killed sixteen Afghans. At what point do strategic commanders have to take responsibility for the missteps of strategic corporals, and at what point must they go back to the president, the commander-in-chief, and admit that a strategy being pursued is too high-risk? When the U.S. president has to apologize publicly three times in one month, as he did in March 2012, for the misconduct of our armed forces, then neither he nor our country is being well served.
As we end our combat operations in Afghanistan, I believe that there will be some reevalution of our armed forces by the American people. We look at our forces very differently when we are at war than when we are at peace.
In 2008, the fundamentalist religious group Focus on the Family released a report speculating about what the year 2012 would be like if Barack Obama won the 2008 election. The report included a section on how the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would doom society and the military. The complete lack of discussion following the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell suggests that Focus on the Family was not only misguided, but completely off the mark. What are your observations of how the military has handled this change?
It was a set of norms that changed over time. Our younger officers and noncommissioned officers reflect mainstream America on this issue, and they are perfectly comfortable with it.
I want to turn to the broader subject of polarization and the courts. I was at a panel at Yale Law School a few years ago, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Six former clerks to justices from Brown talked about how the justices believed that their decision would have an earth-shaking effect on society, and therefore unanimity in the decision would be important not just for the Court and its integrity but for society as a whole. It wasn’t silent acquiescence on the part of a minority.
Diane, how do you see political polarization affecting judges today? There is a perception that you can predict the behavior of judges based on who appointed them, more so than by the nature of the cases they are considering. This view seems to taint our opinion of the entire judiciary, from the Supreme Court on down, and it affects overall public confidence in the courts.
Since the time of Brown, a huge archive of materials has become available, showing exactly how the justices came to that decision. Each justice reached the conclusion that it was the right decision, and so not only were they unanimous in Brown, they were unanimous almost through the 1950s, up until Cooper v. Aaron in 1958, when each justice famously published under his individual name. After that, unanimity began to fall off.
The norm of coming together as a unanimous Court is about finding common ground; it is not “I’ll vote for you in this case because you’ll vote for me in the next case.” In my experience, that never happens, and I don’t think it happens at the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the effort to find common ground has been devalued. Nobody thinks a thing of dissenting opinions, sometimes very sharp ones. People write concurring opinions when they are so moved, and it deprives us of a sense that there is a clear answer in the law. Chief Justice Roberts, during his confirmation hearings and in some subsequent speeches, expressed the hope that he might be able to bring back a greater tradition of unanimity. This lasted for about a term, but once the Court started grappling with more difficult cases, it evaporated.
One could say that the role of judges is to “get the Constitution right,” no matter how much china is broken in the process, and no matter what it does to the judiciary’s relationship with the other branches of government. Or one could contrast this view with another that says judges should follow the old fashioned, common law approach of incrementalism, taking a small step here, a small step there, and waiting to see what happens. Sadly, judges do not have a better crystal ball than anyone else, and when courts try to write too broadly, the law of unintended consequences visits with a vengeance. That’s in part what we are seeing with Citizens United. Nobody was talking about Caperton or the judicial speech case in Minnesota. Someone either needs to connect the dots much better or needs to stick to an incrementalist approach–which takes me back to the issue of unanimity. If you take only a small step, it is sometimes easier to get everyone marching in the same direction.
The problem has not affected the lower courts as much because we have mandatory jurisdiction. The dissent rate is about 3.5 percent in the lower courts, compared to something like 35 percent at the Supreme Court. The lower courts have to take all cases, a greater number of which have fairly clear answers. It does not matter which president appointed the judge; he or she is going to understand the case the same way.
The Citizens United decision, which was written by Justice Kennedy, is breathtakingly naive about what happens in the real world of politics and the real world more generally. That must partly be because you have a justice who has never been in that real world. His entire life has been cloistered, whether in law firms or the judiciary. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had a somewhat different view of these issues, had been an elected politician, the last such member of the Court. In contrast, a majority of the Warren Court had been politicians before serving as justices. We see this problem now at almost all levels of the federal judiciary.
No doubt, part of the reason why judges either come out of the academy or move from one level of the judiciary to the other is because it is easier to predict how they will rule from the bench, as opposed to a politician who would perhaps be more concerned with continuing his legacy for many years after serving. Could you reflect on whether it would be better if the judiciary had a wider range of people drawn from other professions, including, but not limited to, politics.
It is very helpful to have judges from a variety of backgrounds, and there are a number of ways to secure a diversity of experience. Some people are involved in their communities, whether they have been working as prosecutors or judges or academics; other people have focused on other kinds of things. In our court, the Seventh Circuit, we have former prosecutors, former district judges, and some notable academics. Some people have served in the executive branch; other people, not. Collectively, we bring a fair amount of experience to the table.
But one of the reasons why diversity of experience seems to be diminishing at the Supreme Court level is the confirmation process, which is an aspect of our system that is close to broken. It’s very distressing to me personally. Our court has had a vacancy for three years. How can that be? We are just a court of appeals in the middle of the country, and yet highly qualified people are refusing to allow their names to be considered for judgeships. Whenever there is a district court vacancy, Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk in Illinois put together a committee, and people can submit résumés to the committee. But people are not sending in their résumés because they do not want to go through the confirmation process. They view the process as polarized, lengthy, and intrusive. So who is left to confirm? Somebody who has been cloistered, or someone who has never said anything. These are not people who have been living in the real world. It is very troublesome, and we at least need to acknowledge that we have created a very unsatisfactory bar for someone to pass before he or she can move into the federal courts.
Phil, could you reflect on the American people’s low approval rating for Congress and the challenge it poses. Have governors, state legislators, and mayors fared better than Congress? Is the problem getting bigger?
I’m not quite as discouraged about the issue of the popularity of people in public life. It is perfectly possible for our leaders to conduct themselves in a way that leads to approval from the public. The trick is to approach the task with a fundamental respect for the points of view of all people. If you come into office and suddenly identify as a Democrat or Republican and then sign on to whatever the orthodoxy is, you will not get that kind of respect. But if you approach the job by saying, for example, “I know none of those tea party people will vote for me, but they have some points. Their issues about the size of government and the role of states ought to be discussed. I don’t like the context in which they are coming up, but they are valid points.”
Public officials must be able to convey that they have a genuine regard for and understanding of the issues that are important to the people they serve, who are the voters and taxpayers. We must resist the elitist insider game that politics has become in this country. If we aim for these goals, our leaders will generate public confidence despite differences in background, party, and ideology.
I’m very proud that every few days or so on the NewsHour, at the end of the program, we list the names and pictures of those who have died while serving in Afghanistan (originally it was both Iraq and Afghanistan). But I’m increasingly struck by how those who have taken their own lives do not show up on that list. While we are starting to hear more about it, all of us in the media need to do a better job of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. It goes to the question of the all-volunteer force, as Ambassador Eikenberry discussed, and how multiple deployments affect the lives of people who otherwise are very dedicated. They are doing this for their country, but also sometimes to get an education. Repeated deployments may be something more than they can handle.
In terms of the judiciary, I wish there were a better way for the media to get a handle on what the courts do. We have some fantastic reporters who cover the Supreme Court, but we do not do a very good job of covering the rest of the judicial system.
Finally, I want to pick up on Governor Bredesen’s remarks about how our leaders can either inspire or undermine public confidence. What can a leader specifically do or say to rise above the extraordinary division that we have today?
I think it has something to do with approaching leadership positions with a bit of humility and honest regard for the fact that someone from the right wing of the tea party, for instance, or the left wing of the Democratic party, has something to say. Despite disagreement over specific proposals, there will often be enormous tolerance or even support when the public understands that you are trying to solve a problem and move forward in an honest and cooperative way.
Consider the question about the relative role of the states and the federal government: how far should the power of each extend? Today, the tea party and others are insisting on an open discussion of this topic. Although states rights have historically been thought of in the unfortunate context of segregation, the issue is a legitimate one that ought to be talked about by smart people in this country.
When I was overseeing the Medicaid changes that we had to make in Tennessee, it was extraordinarily disruptive. I had sit-ins in my office, 24/7 for six months; I had a group of Democrats visit me and say that I would be a footnote in Tennessee history, that I wouldn’t be reelected and wouldn’t even be able to win the primary when it came around. Well, I ended up setting a record in the next election, and I believe that was because citizens are perfectly prepared to reward what they see as an honest effort to accommodate different points of view, to respect different points of view, and to solve problems. That, to me, is the path to success.
Given our modern methods of communication and media, I disagree with you to some extent. I wish that our leadership could transcend some of the larger challenges and problems that we face, but we now live in a world without the kind of public square that we had thirty or forty years ago, when we had only a few sources of communication and a shared set of facts. Our world is more polarized now, and it is not just because of partisan media, which we have had in many other eras of American history. Rather, our challenges are intensified by a mix of factors that extend beyond simple partisanship, including: the breadth, depth, reach, and immediacy of the 24-hour news cycle; the fact that people can easily shun sources of information that do not reinforce what they know or believe; the fact that it is much easier to perpetrate lies, with no hope of fact checkers ever catching up; the opportunity for amplification that is inherent in social media; and the willingness, in an era of tribalization, to demonize people and leaders.
The challenges also relate to the fact that the business models have changed. Fox News, for example, has developed a business model that brings in more net profits with an audience of 2.5 million people at any given time than what the three networks can make combined, with an audience of 30 million people. Newspapers, struggling to attract readers, have had to turn to Web models, which so far are proving difficult to make financially feasible. Thus the wall that presumably exists between the news staff and the business staff is challenged every day by increasing pressure from commercial interests. In addition, journalism’s watchdog role is being challenged because there is no easy (or affordable) way to support the work of investigative journalists as well as those who focus on congressional delegations and local or state politics.
So let me start with you, Alex; pick any of those challenges and reflect on it. I imagine that your perspective is shaped not only as someone who studies the journalism and media enterprises, but also as someone who teaches a generation of people looking to enter the profession.
I want to look at it from a slightly different perspective because I was struck by what Ambassador Eikenberry said about the difference between a volunteer army and a draft army. I was the last part of the American male population that was subject to the draft. I served in Vietnam, and I came to believe that the most democratic thing that happened in our country was forcing a group of men who had nothing whatsoever in common (except that they were all shaved and naked) to go through basic training together and get to know each other. With the loss of the draft army, we also lost one of the ways we became more mindful of other kinds of people. We live in cocoons now that insulate us not only from facts we do not like, but also from people who are different from us.
Today, the media include many different forms of communication, all of which have a hand in shaping who we are as a culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, as Norm mentioned, there was one set of facts that we learned from Walter Cronkite and the network news shows, which got their fundamental framework from a few institutions like The New York Times. You don’t need me to tell you that it is a very different situation now.
Newspapers have a special role in society. (I’m from a newspaper background, so perhaps I’m prejudiced.) Their focus is local, and they work to identify the commonweal in a community. This is one of the reasons why, despite what you have heard about the newspaper business, the vast majority of newspapers are now making an operating profit. The newspapers that have gone out of business were, for the most part, the second newspaper in a town. People have generally understood that the institution of the newspaper is very important to the social fabric, not only because it tends to be an objective source of news but because it is the news utility.
Broadcast or local television has never been willing to take on the same kind of reportorial role as newspapers have. One exception is the NewsHour, which has been a bastion of evenminded reportage and commentary. To my astonishment, one of our presidential candidates has publicly said that if he is elected, he will cut off funding for PBS. That’s astounding to contemplate as another piece in this puzzle of the media’s role in shaping who we are and what our values are.
That said, I think Governor Bredesen is onto something when he urges us not to lose our minds about something that is much more complicated than just the difficulties of the newspaper business, for example, or even the Citizens United decision. Think about how much public opinion in this country has changed on the issue of homosexuality, for instance. This was an absolutely radioactive issue when I was a child, but now our nation seems to have accepted the fact that homosexuality exists and that it should be accepted, even that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. To me, this demonstrates just how fluid these kinds of things are when you get to where people live.
We have a new, digital world to adjust to. In this new world, people can reinforce their own judgments, their own preferences for what is truth, by relying on broadly defined media sources whose information may come from all different kinds of places. But at the same time, people can change their minds as well. They changed their minds about what the reality was in Iraq. They changed their minds about gay rights. It may be messy, but it is a good-faith process of figuring out what they think and what values they want to espouse. The future will undoubtedly be complicated — there will be things to argue about, to correct, to change and improve — but I do not think that the future will be catastrophic.
Newspapers in particular will not go out of business. They will not be as they were in the past, but they will still be there – and not just because publishers want to keep them, but because communities want them. If the newspapers in this country do their job and give the people in their communities the news they value and need, they will find a way to stay afloat.
My collaborator Tom Mann and I have taken journalists to task for what we call “the sin of false equivalence.” Groups on the left and the right are ready to pounce anytime they think they are being treated unfairly. As a response to our criticism, I received an email message from a veteran reporter covering Congress who said, “You don’t understand, it is our job to report both sides of the story.” I replied: “I thought your job was to report the truth. Sometimes there are multiple sides of a story, sometimes there aren’t.” Judy, how worried are journalists about this problem? Is there any way out of the dilemma?
It troubles us to different degrees, and I think it depends on where you sit and what news organization you are with. We think about it every day at the NewsHour as we consider how to address the main stories of that day. For example, you could argue that a story on immigration has ten sides, not just two. But if we are not turning the entire program over to immigration, and thus have only nine or ten minutes for the segment, we try to figure out the two spokespeople on either side (or maybe sometimes it’s three or four) who will give a full sense of the argument.
I think what you are getting at, Norm, is a problem that I see in all the media at different times. It is the sense that if you put two people out there and then let them argue, you are going to learn something. That’s not always the case because if they are simply repeating the party line on each side, then you haven’t really advanced understanding. So it does require probing and pushing on the part of the interviewer. But the audience, which is already on the edge of its seat, and which is accustomed to seeing what is more accurately described as opinion journalism, is expecting the moderator to pick up on their point of view. They expect us to ask the questions that will elicit the answers they want to hear.
In the past, viewers and listeners would write letters to network ombudsmen and individual correspondents. Now we actively solicit audience responses, and they flood us with email messages and online comments. In many ways, it is terrific that we hear from so many members of the public. On the other hand, I sense that many of these people write because they want us to weigh in on their side. The left wants us to weigh in on the left; the right wants us to weigh in on the right. All we can do is try to ask tough, appropriate questions on both sides and see where it lands – and even that is not always satisfying.
The concept of “truth” is tricky because one side will say that it sees the truth this way, and the other side will say it sees the truth another way. For instance, you could state that the federal deficit is $1.6 trillion, but somebody might ask, “How did you get that figure?” Then you enter a never-ending discussion about numbers that leads you down a rabbit hole.
Over the last fifteen years or so, public support for doing something about climate change has declined. I would argue that a good part of the reason for that is because news shows will feature one voice from the 99.5 percent of scientists who have reached consensus on what is happening in the world and one voice from the 0.5 percent who haven’t, and then inevitably will treat them as if they are equal. My guess is that if we had a debate today about whether the world is flat, a news show would find the 0.5 percent of scientists who think the world is flat. And then we would begin to see skepticism in the broader public about whether the world is not flat.
What we try to do when we begin a discussion on a topic such as climate change is say, “99 percent of scientists, according to this respected society, that respected institute, and this respected think tank, say X; but there is still a group arguing Y.” We will put two or three people on the program, or we will do a report in which we interview several people, and we try to put the arguments in context. But believe me, no matter what you do, you hear from a very loud and unhappy other side. Just recently, there was a development in terms of climate change research, and a respected scientist who had been on the skeptical side moved to the other side. We tried to explain the background and put everything in context, but there were still screams from the skeptics saying that we had not given their side enough attention.
We can and should reflect what the public says, but we still have a job to do, which is to report the news and try to reflect as many different sides of an argument as possible. We can’t collapse every day in anguish because not every person is happy with what we are doing.
Marty, could you comment on this issue specifically from the perspective of newspaper journalism.
We endeavor to find the truth and tell it to the public honestly, honorably, and accurately. But the public sees these things from a different perspective. A recent Pew study revealed that something like two-thirds of Republicans believe that Fox News tells the truth accurately and fairly, while only a third of Democrats believe that to be the case; and two-thirds of Democrats believe that The New York Times tells the truth, whereas only a third of Republicans believe that. We can tell the truth as we find it — and I think that is what we ought to be doing — but the public may view our results quite differently, depending on their preexisting points of view. Moreover, the public these days is drawn to media that present news affirming their preexisting points of view.
I take issue with your point that the reason why there is a difference of opinion about climate change is because the mainstream media, which is what I believe you are referring to, has framed the issue as “half the scientists say this, and half say that.” Any objective evaluation of what mainstream media has done in this regard would show that we have not presented it as half and half by any means; instead, what is at play here is an alternative media that is at least as powerful, if not more powerful, than the mainstream media. By alternative media, I mean websites, blogs, social media, and other ways that people communicate with each other and pass along information to each other. Many people find these forms of communication more persuasive and more credible than what they read in mainstream media. And what you find in alternative media, to an even greater degree than what you find on cable news, is a lot of provocation and a lot of fabrication. That should be a far greater concern to the American public than the issue of balance and bias.
What are The Boston Globe's rivals? Is it the Boston Herald? Politico? Is it the various and sundry blogs in some of these alternative media that you refer to? Has your view changed with regard to your rivals?
It has changed. In the past, the primary rival would have been the other newspaper in town. But you have to define what you mean by rival. Do you mean rivals for getting stories and information, or do you mean a rival for revenue? Those are two different things. Many people have interpreted the decline of revenue for media outlets as a decline in audience, but in fact we have seen a dramatic increase. The Boston Globe now has an online audience of six to seven million unique visitors per month. That’s an extraordinary number that we never would have had with a print paper alone. People around the country and the world now have access to information in the Globe.
Today our greatest rivals for revenue are websites such as Google News, Facebook, YouTube, and Yahoo. These sites are increasingly going after not just national advertisers but local advertisers, too. In terms of competition for information, I’m always tempted to say we have no competition; but we do of course have competition from other news outlets.
Newspapers are the primary source of original information in any local community, and there is more reporting happening at the local level than at the national level. Most investigative reporting, for instance, happens at the local level, and a newspaper typically has a reporting staff far larger than any other media outlet in its community. In fact, the newspaper’s reporting staff is generally larger than that of all those other media outlets combined. Several years ago, Pew studied the question, how does news happen? Where does it come from? Who originates the stories? Focusing on the city of Baltimore, Pew determined that 95 percent of original stories came from newspapers in the city.
The Washington Post used to have a stringer or a reporter go to every school board meeting in the counties around D.C. They do not do that anymore because they cannot afford it. How severe is the challenge to journalism’s watchdog role, whether at the level of the school boards, which now have no one watching them (unless they are televised), or in Congress, where we no longer have reporters digging into the transactions of individual members.
We are tremendously challenged. Many large metropolitan newspapers have eliminated their Washington bureaus over the last ten years, which means that they do not cover their congressional delegations. They may try to cover them from their hometown, but they typically do not. Many of these same newspapers have eliminated or sharply cut back coverage of their state legislatures and their governors. After I left The Miami Herald, where I had served as editor, the paper combined bureaus with the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). There are fewer people covering the legislature and the governor in the state of Florida, and that is a matter of great concern.
At the local level, institutions like school boards, courts, and police departments require not only day-to-day coverage but also deeper investigative reports. Many newspapers no longer have the resources to do that. Some others, much to their credit, continue to do that kind of work, and if you look at who receives the Pulitzer Prizes from year to year, you see that many local papers are still doing very important and courageous work investigating their local institutions. But a lot of that work is tremendously expensive. At the Globe, for example, we initiated the investigation into the cover-up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. That cost us well over $1 million in one year, and that’s probably a minimum of what it cost us to do that work over the course of a year. Then you face the challenge of potential libel suits and court judgments. Many papers (and some newspaper owners) have decided that they do not want the flack or the expense that come with investigative reporting. They don’t think it is necessary or that it can be, to use the word that is bandied about so often, monetized as a business proposition. Indeed, there is some question as to whether it can be monetized, whether the kind of money that is being spent can be earned back.
Any news organization, but especially any newspaper, that thinks investigative journalism is not in its financial interest is headed for bankruptcy. The very thing that will keep these institutions in business is that brand of reporting.There is no question about the muscle and bone being cut away from statehouse reporting or local beat reporting that leads to deeper investigations. However, some other entities have stepped in to fill the gap. For instance, journalism schools around the country are now doing serious reporting. Some foundations are funding specific projects that require the kinds of reporting that have suffered the most cuts.
I want to invite those from the first part of our panel to add their comments or ask any questions they have.
David Ignatius, of The Washington Post, commented that embedded reporting “comes at a price.” He continued: “We’re observing these wars from just one perspective, not seeing them for the whole. When you see my byline from Kandahar, Kabul, Basra, you should not think of me going out among the ordinary people, asking questions on all sides. I’m usually inside an American military bubble, and that vantage point has value, but it’s hardly the full picture. I fear that embedded media is becoming the norm, and not just when it comes to war.” I’d like to hear any thoughts from fellow panelists on this.
He is absolutely right to be concerned. When reporting from a war zone, it is incumbent on correspondents to make very clear what their limits are. I would also add that this is a casualty of money. So many news organizations covered the hot part of the Iraq War, but when it ground down, they pulled their reporters out. It cost so much to keep reporters there and to keep them safe. The same has been true in Afghanistan; I couldn’t say how many reporters are really covering Afghanistan anymore. It is a function of revenue and money, and it is a much bigger question than we have time to deal with this morning. But I will say that ever since people learned that they can get the news for free online, the industry has been in a kind of crisis. We will figure it out, but it’s a struggle.
I want to go back to our broadest topic — stewarding democracy — to point out that the move online raises more questions than simply how news organizations can make money. Many people in our country still do not have access to technologies that would allow them to get news online, yet they might be able to pick up a newspaper on the street. I worry that we are excluding them, and that this may be another example of how we are, in fact, spreading apart as opposed to coming together as a society.
In listening to the discussion, I was struck by the ease with which everyone slipped into this notion of reporting as being two-sided, with a spokesperson for one side and a spokesperson for the other. By casting stories in this way, do we immediately set up a “good versus bad” dichotomy that obscures the nuances of an issue and encourages head-butting between spokespeople?
I was speaking in shorthand when I talked about getting the two sides of an issue. It’s not as if we plunge in and take only the RNC talking points and the DNC talking points; we put more thought into it than that. But it is absolutely true that the more folks we can talk to, the better. And this includes both those in the middle and those who are firmly on each side. We should not shut out the extremes, keeping in mind what percentage of the population they represent. We sometimes hear from viewers who ask, “Why don’t you ever cover the far left? You’re always covering the far right position on, say, the role of religion in politics, but you’re not covering the far left.”
I hope I did not slip into the notion that we have two sides, because I don’t see it that way. These stories have many sides or no sides. It is a matter of finding out what is really going on, and that is the bulk of what we try to do. We also have to be careful not to view all these stories in a political framework: that it’s just talking heads debating political issues. In fact, the issues relate to what is happening in society at large. The more our news stories convey this, the better we serve the public.
I have received several cards with questions from the audience, covering everything from WikiLeaks, to the military, to Citizens United. So, WikiLeaks: good or bad?
As far as I’m concerned, The New York Times dealt with WikiLeaks in a responsible way. It took information that was made available, went through it carefully, and screened out anything it thought would put people’s lives in danger; but it did not pretend that the information was not now available. The news media are supposed to tell us what they find out, and I think that is what happened.
Julian Assange and his organization made this information available, but he found that nothing was accomplished just by posting it. He had to give the information to The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel in order for it to be noticed. And when he did so, he gave these papers the opportunity to treat the information responsibly, which I think they did.
I think we need to remember that WikiLeaks is not journalism. It’s somebody with an agenda who wanted to get information out into the open. You could argue that there was a lot of valuable information, but there was also a lot of harmful information.
The New York Times, or The Boston Globe, or The Washington Post has to decide whether running a story or making information available would damage national security interests. I think most of us have been very comfortable with the fact that those decisions have so far been made by responsible, mature people who weigh the right to know against the needs of the nation. Are news organizations in danger of losing that role of gatekeeper, now that they no longer control the release of information?
What’s more of a danger is that, for instance, The New York Times has reported things that the Obama administration has not been happy about, and the administration has gone after the reporters to give up their sources. If you start putting people in jail for talking to reporters, you are going to have a real problem with reporters being able to do their job at the highest level, which is to tell the public things that people in power do not want them to know, for a variety of reasons. I think that problem could be much more dangerous than Julian Assange.
Having been on the receiving end of the pain that was felt from the WikiLeaks release, I have to tell you, I sat around with the embassy team and went through all the cables that had potentially been leaked. In the end, we asked ourselves, why are we writing all of this stuff? Who is even reading it? So I think that one of the lessons has to do with managing information.
When we recruit for the volunteer force, we appeal to people by describing military service as a career-building move and an opportunity to make some money. Is this a positive development?
Motivations for coming into the service are mixed. Certainly, the financial aspect is an important one, but the pricetag for our taxpayers is steadily increasing. Current health care costs in the military are about $50 billion a year, and they are going up. Judy mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder; that and other health issues from Afghanistan and Iraq are driving costs higher and higher. Retirement costs, too, are going up. The role that material benefit plays in building this magnificent force has to be looked at. I think it is an unsustainable model.If you look at the demographics of our military, it is not a complete cross-section of American society. Both the Hispanic and Asian populations in the United States are under-represented in our military. Perhaps most surprising is that we tend to be overrepresented in certain parts of the country. Alabama has ten recruiting stations for the armed forces; the Greater Los Angeles area has three. That’s okay, except that the Greater Los Angeles area is about three times the population of Alabama. Geographically, we are not doing a good job of making our military represent American society.
Diane, how does Citizens United affect foreign corporations?
For a long time, the United States (and most of the rest of the world) has followed the rule that a corporation is a citizen of the state, or if applicable, the country that incorporated it. In the United States, we have lots of Delaware corporate “citizens” in this sense; we also have a certain number of corporations that are citizens of other U.S. states. Typically we have not looked through the corporate structure to see where the shareholders come from. So a company incorporated in Delaware may be a wholly owned subsidiary of a Japanese corporation, or it may have foreign citizens as shareholders. Despite the foreign ownership, the Delaware incorporation means that it is still a U.S. “citizen.” In fact, the United States has a network of treaties that make either of these scenarios perfectly lawful. But those treaties run into conflict with our election laws, which do not permit foreign influence in our elections. One of the many things the Supreme Court has to figure out is how to reconcile these two models.
In addition, it is worth recalling that Justice Kennedy approaches Citizens United as though a corporation is nothing more or less than a group of people. But if we look at the idea of a group more carefully, we see that there are at least three distinct scenarios. First, if those of us sitting here decided that we wanted to get together and send money to a certain political candidate, we could all chip in, say, $100 each and send that contribution as a group. Secondly, as Justice Kennedy points out, unions are a type of group. So unions can participate in the political process. Finally, a corporation can be thought of as a group. Here’s the rub: the issue of agency is different in each situation. In the first scenario, we have collectively decided on a course of action, and every person had a direct say in the decision. In the case of unions, although the group is entitled to participate in the political process, the Supreme Court has insisted on a right to opt out of the union’s political activities. If you belong to a union and it supports the Democratic candidate but you like the Republican candidate, you are entitled to a refund of your dues to the extent that the union participates in political activities. There is a whole line of Supreme Court cases about this. Corporations are even more complicated, but without going into all the details, suffice it to say that the Court was not looking at the differences in the agency model that might be appropriate for different kinds of groups. Going forward, there could be some room for development along those lines.
I want to add one final twist on this topic. Not long after he was chosen as Governor Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan went to Las Vegas for a long and intimate private meeting with businessman and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson. The SpeechNow case that I mentioned earlier has blown a hole in the notion that these super PACs are independent of candidates, and now they can appear at fundraisers, among other things. Sheldon Adelson’s money comes much less from the casino business in Las Vegas, which has tanked in recent years, but almost entirely from Macao and Singapore. If Sheldon Adelson calls someone to whom he has contributed “independently” tens of millions of dollars and asks for an appointment, you can be sure that he will get that appointment. And you can also be sure that the subject of policy toward China will come up. So there isn’t much of a distinction here.