Sunday, October 30, 2011

What's the press for? "To hold those in power accountable." But a lack of attention or sustained coverage diminishes accountability.

At the Brooklyn Book Festival Sunday, September 18, I attended a panel featuring three journalists, all Pulitzer Prize winners.

One, Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica ("an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest"), observed, "The primary function of the press is to hold those in power accountable."

That's a justification for First Amendment protections, but that doesn't mean the press consistently recognizes that watchdog role.

That issues arises in the book Bad News: How America's Business Press Missed the Story of the Century, about the failure to anticipate the financial crisis, despite significant evidence that it was looming.

And yes, there are some observations that apply to Atlantic Yards.

The impact of under-coverage

In an essay titled "Missing the Moment," Ryan Chittum, who writes about the business press for Columbia Journalism Review, observed:
It's easy to find perfectly fine stories than demonstrably wrong ones, especially in the top tier of the financial press. But the hardest part of journalism is the picking of priorities. A news organization can only cover so much. What was left out or under-covered is as much a part of the story of how the press performed as what made the papers.
What about Atlantic Yards: Did the New York Times cover the oversight hearing led by state Senator Bill Perkins? The failure to conduct a market study regarding blight? The delays in the release of the Development Agreement? Even Forest City Ratner's role in Marty Markowitz's fundraising?

Why coverage should be sustained

Chittum adds:
Even when it succeeds in doing so, the press's instinct is to dig up a story, run it, and move on to the next one. But one-off stories rarely leave a large impact. Real change usually takes a drumbeat of reporting that pounds critical information into the collective consciousness, forcing the powers that be to act.
That applies, for example, to the impressive but one-off Reuters investigation of the EB-5 program for immigrant investors.

That news organization, even when offered rich fodder for continued reporting, chose not to follow up

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