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Good government needs effective press

POSTED: March 6, 2009 11:04 a.m.
These are extraordinary political and economic times, and even from a distance you can sense the animation on Capitol Hill as Congress watches President Obama distribute the stimulus package, weighs his executive-branch appointments and responds to his various initiatives.
You can feel the same intensity in the Washington press corps, as it works to keep a rapt public briefed on the ins and outs of the capital’s daily workings. Yet, as capable a job as it’s doing, we should all be worried about what happens with the press in upcoming months.
I say this because reporters in Washington bear great responsibility in our democracy at the moment. Both Congress and the White House are in the hands of the same political party, which is almost certain to magnify an already troubling long-term trend: congressional deference to White House authority, especially on budgetary and foreign-policy issues. We saw the pernicious effect of this during the first six years of the previous administration, when a Republican Congress failed in its oversight role of a Republican president.
Now, although the policy particulars are different with a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president, the results could very well turn out the same: A Congress that defers to the president is, unfortunately, a Congress that is prone to be passive in the oversight of his administration, which can lead to ineffective government performance, unresponsive bureaucracy and wasteful spending. A few legislators will conduct tough oversight, but the likelihood is high that most will not.
This means that the watchdogs of the press will be needed more than ever to delve into the federal government’s nooks and crannies, analyze its performance, make sure that programs are implemented as intended, explore the shadows where officials often feel most comfortable operating and make sure that both the American people and members of Congress understand what the government is doing in their name.
The public’s dependence on the press, however, couldn’t come at a more challenging time. Almost every day now brings word of newspaper cutbacks — in space for news, in reporters and in the resources that can be devoted to research, investigation and reporting. News organizations from Gannett to the Tribune Company to Cox Communications have been laying off and shrinking, with the result that newspapers large and small are trimming or even closing their Washington bureaus, a trend that has been echoed at state capitols around the country. Inevitably, this means that the breadth of news we can get about our governments, both federal and state, is shrinking, too.
This is not to say that the volume of political and policy news has shrunk — not with niche cable channels, the blogosphere, the Web sites of organizations devoted to particular issues, and a press corps that, despite its travails, remains determined to cover Washington. Nor do I mean to suggest that we don’t get solid investigative work out of the DC press corps any longer. It was the Washington Post, for instance, that reported on the CIA’s secret interrogation sites for suspected terrorists and on mismanagement at the Smithsonian Institution. It was The New York Times that broke the story about the government’s warrantless wiretapping program.
And it was a politics-and-policy Web site, Talking Points Memo, that led the press corps in detailing the Justice Department’s politically motivated firing of U.S. attorneys. Moreover, the nonprofit effort, ProPublica, shows promise as a source of serious investigative reporting down the road.
Still, the federal government is immense, and over the years most of the press corps had already given up paying close, detailed attention to the inner workings of various departments, from Agriculture to Housing and Urban Development. This is the kind of coverage that requires patient digging, months of work, detailed knowledge of the arcana of federal policy, sophisticated databases, cultivation of sources and diligent followup of whistleblowers.
I have no doubt that a handful of media outlets will continue to devote time and resources to investigating big stories, but in an era when the very existence of newspapers is coming into question and a successful business model for sustaining potent news organizations hasn’t yet emerged, will even they bother to assign reporters to sniff out problems in the administration of far-flung federal programs?
The plain truth is, representative democracy depends on robust oversight of the activities of federal officials. It ought to be part of the daily business of Congress, and the daily concern of the media. When one is politically disinclined to press as hard as it ought, and the other is financially hampered in its ability to do so, every American ought to be concerned.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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