At the Washington Independent Dave Weigel - Delaware's finest* - has an entertaining piece on some of the differences between the British and American attitudes to journalism. The occasion for this rumination is the departure from DC of Tim Shipman**, formerly the Sunday Telegraph's man in Washington, who is returning to Blighty to be Deputy Political Editor at the dear old Daily Mail. Weigel's piece is suitably entertaining, but perhaps my favourite bit was this:
That isn’t the view of Democrats who have been burned by the Telegraph’s stories. “They use anonymous sources to a degree that makes you wonder if they actually have them,” said Bob Shrum, the retired political consultant who managed the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). “I would have murdered someone from the Kerry campaign if they talked to the Daily Telegraph.”
The Washington press corps takes itself very seriously indeed and there are times when this helps produce journalism of a depth and quality that is beyond anything the British press aspires to. But it's not all good news! There are times when this Seriousness of Purpose becomes an impediment to good journalism. If the old adage that news is something that someone doesn't want you to know, then entire weeks can pass without the White House press corps revealing anything that might embarrass the administration. Heck, Dana Milbank's snark-filled sketch for the Washington Post is too much entertainment for many of that paper's readers to stomach. And Milbank is the only sketchwriter working in Washington.
It wasn't always thus: for much of the nineteenth century it was the Americans who were the raucous, vulgar muckrackers flinging mud and seeing what would stick and it was the conformist British who had an aversion to mud of any sort. My, how times change. Indeed, it's sometimes tempting to suppose that as power has been concentrated in Washington - and as the Presidency grew into its current bloated state - the DC press corps has become ever more deferential to power and become part of the very establishment it is supposed to be watching. DC-based reporters dislike the notion that it's all a cosy club, but in scarcely helps dispel that notion with events such as the Gridiron Dinner and the White House Correspondents' Dinner, each of which reinforce that unfortunate perception.
Sure, there was Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, but remember too that Ben Bradlee, patron saint of the press's Idea of Itself, was a shill for the Kennedys and ignored - you might say connived in - their abuse of wiretapping. And remember too that Newsweek spiked Michael Isikoff's scoop about Monica Lewinsky. More recently, of course, there was the Bush administration and the Iraq War fiasco (a journalistic fiasco for sure; the jury may still be out on its strategic consequences). For all that Republicans like to think the press is against them - a presumption that has some truth to it - no visitor to DC from Britain can fail to be struck by how deferential the American press is.
That does mean that it can avoid some of the witless hysteria the British love to indulge in, but this sobriety comes at a price too. Still, as Weigel makes clear, in the internet age these distinctions are blurring: reports in British papers, thanks to the miracle of the interwebs, can move the agenda in Washington too. It's a global news market now and there's no such thing as a purely domestic or purely international audience anymore.
And, as I've written before, some of the shortcomings of the DC-press may be compensated for by the blogosphere. It is, in many ways, the hard-running, shrill, entertaining, vindictive, opinionated tabloid newspaper Washington DC has needed for years and years.
Relatedly, I've written about how Politico's success is explained, at least in part, by it being a "British cuckoo" in the American journalistic nest.
*Disclosure: Mr Wiegel is a friend of mine.