Real Reporting, However Rare

I’m not a reporter, but like any common person, I can see how far journalism has fallen from fundamental standards.  Standards of ethics, and of diligence, seem almost the exception now.  On the left side of my website, one can find the the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Statement of Ethical Principles.  They’re just one set of standards that reporters and editors can adopt.   

Like many common people who read newspapers, I hope for, and expect, a serious examination of politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, etc.       

There have always been reporters who have disgraced themselves and their profession, but now one finds more and more reporters who don’t even seem to think of their work as a professional endeavor; they quickly ingratiate themselves with every small-town bureaucrat and blowhard politician. 

Not so long ago, young Americans dreamed of reporting on public affairs with curiosity, diligence, and zeal.  They didn’t just want to be reporters; they wanted to be intrepid reporters, investigative reporters, and tenacious reporters.  Many still admire, and seek to be, those reporters.        

Sadly, that’s not true for everyone: sycophants, ingratiating weasels, hacks, and ersatz reporters who simply flack happy news, ignoring even the most basic conflicts of interest along the way.  

(Imagine an officer holder, convinced of his own self-professed powers of objectivity and impartiality, covering news of his own actions. No one thinks that even the most skilled politicians could do so without bias.  One would be scornful if intelligent politicians like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama also served, while in office, as editors-in-chief of the Washington Post or New York Times.  If these intelligent men could not serve as editors fairly — and they could not — one should give no credence to claims that it can be done elsewhere. It can’t.  Insisting otherwise is unserious and self-deceiving.)   

There’s a solid story in the Janesville Gazette that shows how far other newspapers have fallen from simple standards of inquiry into public proposals and politicians’ schemes.  Lexie Clinton, in Questions remain as state pushes ahead with “shovel ready” rail line, describes well investigative reporting from the  Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and UW-Madison journalism students, on whether Wisconsin’s truly ready for a light rail line.  

Governor Doyle contends that we are:

We’re maybe one of the only states in the country … if not the only one that’s actually planned for this moment,” Doyle declared July 17 in announcing a new partnership with the Spanish train company, Talgo, to provide sleek new rail cars. “This truly is the most shovel-ready rail project in the Midwest and, I think, the U.S.

Are we?  Ms. Clinton reports on direct, serious investigative reporting into a proposed rail line:

 ….– Wisconsin officials don’t know how many people currently commute along the route between Milwaukee and Madison. State transportation spokesman Christopher Klein countered that record ridership in Wisconsin on Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail service, shows the state is ready for more. “Wisconsin doesn’t need to prove we want to ride trains,” Klein said. “We already have.” 

— Officials in four cities where stops are planned—Brookfield, Madison, Oconomowoc and Watertown—are enthusiastic supporters but remain unaware of many of the details. Klein said Wisconsin is ahead of most states in planning but cited a federal report that acknowledged some details aren’t worked out because “states have had little time to prepare for a … program for intercity passenger rail of this magnitude.” 

— Critics question the viability of the planned stop at the Madison airport, which is nearly 6 miles from the city’s major downtown destinations. Klein said bringing the train downtown would add at least half an hour to the trip, which would be “extremely undesirable” for passengers not stopping in Madison. 

— Other benefits of the project have been thrown into doubt by a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report that concluded rail projects would have “little impact on the congestion, environmental, energy and other issues that face the U.S. transportation system.” 

— The description “high-speed” is a misnomer. State transportation officials say the train likely would average about 70 mph the first few years. The train is expected to travel up to 110 mph by 2015 once the state completes additional safety improvements. 

A weak reporter would merely present Governor Doyle’s press release.  A biased reporter would slant the story’s viewpoint toward a friend, acquaintance, or favored cause.  A legislator from the governor’s party in the State Assembly could declare impartial reporting, but only at the risk of credulity.     

The Gazette story on light rail did what Americans have always hoped and admired in our free press: it presented viewpoints, probed and questioned those viewpoints, without slavish devotion and servile deference to politicians and bureaucrats.  

Admirable, yet sadly rare.