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PRIZE SNOOZE

May

31

by

by Matt Taibbi

I’m new to Buffalo, but already I feel offended on the city’s behalf every time I turn on the news. No city in the country gets less love from the national media than Buffalo. And no city’s journalists get left out of the fun more. When was the last time you saw a TV reporter from Buffalo standing in a flak jacket in front of a burning tank? When was the last time you saw an overpaid Buffalo journalist (Tim Russert no longer counts) with a self-satisfied smirk on his face lobbing out softball questions from a panel at a Presidential debate? The answers in both cases are never and never– and the sad news, folks, is that that will probably never change.

Here’s an illustration of how bad things are for Buffalo. Just last week, when the remains of Chandra Levy’s body were found in a park in Washington, every major network in the country had a reporter in a jogging costume at the park within two hours. Fox TV’s Greta Van Susteren was there in 90 minutes. As I watched her doing her live shot, I thought there was something strange about the camera was set up. Van Susteren’s trademark masculine chin was just as freakishly cubical and convex as always, but the background in the shot looked fuzzy, remote. After a minute, I thought to myself: “Gosh, Greta’s pretty far off the ground. She’s gotten taller.”

But that was only the way it looked. In fact, Van Susteren was standing on top of Wolf Blitzer, Sam Donaldson, and 23 other bureau hacks from local affiliates all over the country. The journalists were standing in a pile there at Rock Creek. They were stacked so high that the networks had to shoot from crane-buckets and towers. But there was no one there from Buffalo, not even on the print side– in fact, as far as I can tell, there was no Buffalo reporter even in the city at all.

Buffalo’s best chance to get in on the feeding frenzy, the Buffalo News, mailed it in. Their front-page Chandra story the next day was a dull double-bylined offering by two out-of-house reporters, Steve Twomey and Sari Horowitz of the Washington Post.

The Levy story, frivolous as it obviously is, is a perfect illustration of how the structure of modern media fails smaller markets like Buffalo. Year after year, the Buffalo News attains some of the highest profitability margins of any newspaper in the country. Just a few years ago, Editor and Publisher magazine rated it as the most profitable newspaper in the country. It has a billionaire owner and seemingly limitless resources to pursue its own coverage of breaking news. Yet it doesn’t even have its own reporters in the nation’s capital to cover hot-button news stories. If a major city’s sole print daily can’t even cover Washington, what kind of coverage of the rest of the planet can it possibly get?

The owner of the News, hurrumphing billionaire Warren Buffet, has an answer to that question. As a director of the Washington Post and the owner of a 17 percent stake in that paper, he would naturally answer that, by allowing the Buffalo News to take advantage of the fine coverage of his other, more famous paper, he is doing the citizens of Buffalo a favor. And indeed, when Buffet bought the News, it was widely hoped that an owner with deep pockets and media connections would help raise journalistic standards in the city. At the time of the sale, Buffet issued a statement that was widely cheered and quoted: “I want to achieve business success in newspapers, but will be unhappy unless it is accompanied by journalistic success.”

But in fact what Buffet’s business acumen has meant for the city is a one-horse daily newspaper market, and a pattern of cost-cutting that has left the News itself utterly dependent on outside sources for non-local coverage. As for the efficacy of using material from the reputable and much-ballyhooed Washington Post, well… one need only look at this year’s Pulitzer Prize awards to see what that has meant for ordinary readers in places like Buffalo, who live far from the action.

The Post, as it does every year (the Post and the New York Times usually win about half of the Pulitzers overall and generally all of the important ones, while lesser papers like the Boston Globe are usually thrown a bone for things like sports coverage or editorial cartooning), won a handful of Pulitzers in 2002. One of the three awards that it won this spring was for National Reporting. This particular award is directly relevant to Buffalo, since most all of the articles submitted for the prize were also republished in the Buffalo News.

In lieu of having its own home-grown reporters cluelessly wandering the mall at Washington in search of dubious scoops, Buffalo last year had the privilege of reading storied muckraker Bob WoodwardWoodward’s celebrated insider bulletins from the Hill. The Pulitzer committee, which singled out stories like the October 21 “CIA Told to Do ‘Whatever Necessary’ to Kill Bin Laden,” (republished in the Buffalo News under the homier headline of “Bush Backs CIA on Killing of bin Laden”) for praise, deemed this a good thing. But upon closer examination, what the committee was really praising the Post for was its willingness to restrict itself to sources higher up in the ivory tower than a small-town reporter would likely have access to.

The Post’s National Reporting award was for “comprehensive coverage of America’s war on terrorism, which regularly brought forth new information together with skilled analysis of unfolding developments.” The Pulitzer Committee’s ruling was that the Post coverage of the most important story of this or any other recent year was the best that the country had to offer. Cities like Buffalo that relied on Post coverage, in other words, had no reason to complain of being uninformed about 9/11.

But get this: of the eleven stories the Post submitted to the Pulitzer Committee for the award, a full six relied exclusively on government sources, the vast majority of them unnamed. And as sportswriters say, this game wasn’t even as close as the score indicated. Even in those stories that didn’t rely entirely on government sources, the overwhelming majority of the information still came directly from anonymous employees of the state.

I actually went through all the articles and did a count. By my reckoning, 67 of the 78 quoted sources in the eleven Post articles were government sources. And again, the vast majority of those sources were unnamed.

It is hard to call reporting that relies solely on government sources real journalism. The Soviets did it, of course, giving prizes to Pravda and Izvestia journalists for their efficient clerical work in relaying official Communist party press releases to the masses. In the States, we confidently called that kind of reporting total bullshit for over 70 years. But when one of our own journalists does exactly the same thing, we can’t give him awards fast enough.

Here’s an example from the award-winning Post submissions– the December 9 piece, “U.S. Says New Tape Points to bin Laden,” written by Walter Pincus and Karen DeYoung. This is a piece that the Soviets couldn’t have done any better. In it, the Post reported that a “new tape” obtained by U.S. intelligence services offers offers “the most conclusive evidence” to date that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 bombings. Unnamed government sources quoted in the piece claimed that the tape shows bin Laden bragging about the attack to associates, and noting that the damage to the World Trade Center was “worse than [he] expected.”

The story was reported as fact despite the fact that the journalists were not even allowed to see the tape, or even see a transcript. It ran it despite the fact that none of the sources in the piece were willing to go on the record asserting the tape’s existence.

Given the fact that the Bush administration’s failure to publicly release concrete proof linking bin Laden to the attacks had already been an international issue, this was extremely dicey journalism. A truly independent newspaper would have laughed in the White House’s face had it called up to say, “We have proof that bin Laden did it. It’s on tape. But don’t quote us on that.”

The right response there would have been to say, “Uh-huh. Show us the tape and we’ll think about it.” But the Post blew off all of these considerations and just ran the piece under a big banner headline on the front page. Again, if the Soviets had done this (and they did, over and over, for instance in the numerous Pravda articles claiming that the Soviet Union had been “invited” to invade Afghanistan), we would have laughed at any suggestion that this was real journalism. But Pincus and DeYoung now have a Pulitzer Prize on their resumes.

A quick note on Pincus. Since all news articles in papers like the Washington Post seem more or less exactly alike, few people ever bother to look at the byline to wonder who wrote them. After all, you don’t ask the name of the chef that cooked your Big Mac. But in Pincus’s case, the byline is worth a look. Among journalists, his name is one of the most notorious in the business. In an article he wrote for the Post shortly after taking a job there in 1967, Pincus admitted proudly that he had worked for the CIA, representing the U.S. at international conferences in 1960 under an assumed identity. The Washington Times, one of the most conservative papers in the country, referred to Pincus in 1996 as the “CIA’s house reporter.”

It’s well-known in the business that when the intelligence community has something it really wants to put over on the people, it gives Pincus a call. A good example came in the famous San Jose Mercury-News fiasco in 1996, when the small California paper published an expose that claimed that the CIA had sold crack to fund the contras. Pincus led a counterattack by the big dailies dismissing the Mercury reporting as groundless.

He was an old hand at dismissing Contra-hijinks allegations by then. In 1989, Pincus’s take on the Iran-Contra allegations had been, “Just because a congressional commission in Costa Rica says something, doesn’t mean it’s true.” Obviously, he doesn’t bring the same muckraker skepticism to statements by American officials… but who’s counting?

If you bother looking closely, you can see that the Post itself is uneasy about its reliance on unnamed sources. This is clear when you look at the tortured wording of the attributions in the pieces. There are a finite number of different ways to say “According to one unnamed government source,” but the Post somehow manages to use all of them, sometimes within the same article. Take the aforementioned Woodward piece, “CIA Told to Do ‘Whatever Necessary’ to Kill bin Laden.” Here’s a list of the attributed sources in that piece:

  • “Officials”
  • “One senior official”
  • “A senior official”
  • “The Vice President”
  • “Another senior official”
  • “A senior Bush official”
  • “Another senior Bush official”
  • “One official”
  • “Bush officials”

It takes some doing not to repeat any of those phrases within an article. I mean, you have to really be looking out for it. And in this case, you wouldn’t be looking out for it if you weren’t painfully aware of how embarrassing the whole thing is.

This is what having Warren Buffet running your only serious newspaper does for a city like Buffalo. Here you have a city that’s in the midst of a serious fiscal crisis, brought on in no small part by a shortfall in expected income tax revenue sent back to the region by the state. That shortfall is obviously mainly due to the blow dealt to the New York State economy by 9/11. The terrorism issue, and the federal government’s decision to allocate more of its resources to a military buildup than to aid to New York State, is directly relevant to this city.

But instead of getting the perspective of a local reporter, who might be inclined to ask if a dozen new school buildings in Buffalo might be more useful in the long run than one pilotless drone that the Air Force fires into the side of a mountain somewhere in Afghanistan, we get a bunch of Georgetown hotshot hacks with monster expense accounts feeding us feel-good war news from the anonymous White House pals their paper just treated to lunch. It might be the truth, but who knows? Would you be willing to bet your school system on it? All of this sucks, but that’s the way things work in the Warren Buffet era– it just costs too much to let the natives in small cities do their own reporting. We don’t even get to gawk at Chandra Levy’s skull with our own eyes.

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