Impact: how the press affects federal policy making.

Impact: how the press affects federal policy making. – book reviews

Jonathan Alter

Impact: How the Press Affects Federal Policy Making

When reportersget together to drink and complain, the subject occasionally turns to the issue of power–our power. Of course we have it, most will argue. If we don’t, what the hell are we doing at the office at two in the morning diddling around on a word processor for less money than our brain-dead ex-classmates spend on lunch? Look how much power we have compared to bureaucrats; the cabinet secretary reads our stories before he reads their memos. The lobbyist? He goes one on one; we go one on thousands or millions. Reporters can usually be counted on to brag about how stories they wrote causes the closing of a sadistic mental institution or sent a politician to jail back in the days when they worked on the city desk.

At about this juncture in the conversation,when the self-congratulation over keeping score this way reaches its peak, a friend of mine usually pipes up with a theory depressing enough to send everyone directly to business school. The stories from the small town metro desk are precisely the point, he says. A reporter can only be truly powerful if his power is exercised directly. But “agenda setting,” the most common definition of journalistic power on a national scale, is accomplished diffusely. In Washington, he says, there are simply too many individuals and institutions clashing at too many levels for any single reporter to really claim much credit for anything beyond simply contributing information. In other words, at precisely the moment we broke into the big leagues, we lost most of our power.

I think my friend’s at least partlywrong, but it can be hard to prove. He even argues, with some merit, that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not responsible for bringing down Nixon; Judge John J. Sirica did it. So I was glad for the ammunition this book provided my argument. Martin Linsky and a team from Harvard Kennedy School of Government have interviewed important policy makers (plus a few reporters) and produced an informative study of the way press coverage frames issues at the federal level.

Linsky points out that with10,000 journalists from 3000 news organizations covering Washington, the institutional power is now so overwhelming that we sometimes forget it wasn’t always so. “I doubt I spent much time thinking about the press as distinguished from the general public and the Congress,” says Theodore Sorensen of his years as John F. Kennedy’s top aide. Compare that to the attitude of Stuart Eizenstat, Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser, who viewed the press as a “litmus test”–if the press couldn’t be convinced, he says, then neither could the public. The change from a cooperative press to a combative, cynical one is usually attributed to Vietnam and Watergate. But the book also explains how the press reacts in an adversarial way in part because the government has been conditioned to expect that reaction. We get to see this through the eyes of the officials themselves, though they are overquoted making obvious points.

Instead of laying out each casestudy in its own chapter, they’re mixed together here in a way that’s confusing. But at least I now have a few more examples of reporters who changed the world. On June 6, 1977, Walter Pincus wrote a story in The Washington Post under the headline: “Neutron Killer Warhead Buried in ERDA Budget.” The article explained for the first time how the U.S. Government was developing a little-known “neutron bomb” that kills people but leaves buildings standing. This is not exactly how the government described the weapon. Proponents pointed out that it would stop the advance of Soviet tanks without blowing up European cities that might otherwise be caught in the crossfire. But the Pincus formulation stuck. Two years later, of the 60 newspaper articles about the neutron bomb surveyed by this book, 50 included Pincus’s description. So did TV accounts. “The issue is not what ought to be the administration’s position on enhanced radiation warheads, but what ought to be the administration’s position on the Pincus story,” Linsky writes. The public relations fiasco over the bomb helped lead Carter to cancel it.

The other cases mentioned–theReagan administration’s tax credits for segregated schools like Bob Jones University, the review of Social Security disability rolls that led to horror stories about people losing benefits in 1982, the Carter administration’s relocation of residents of Love Canal–are also viewed mostly as screw-ups by officials who let the stories spin out of control. The conclusion is that these are disasters that some good p.r. could have prevented.

But the journalists themselves getoff pretty easy, which is unfortunate, because their motives, conscious and unconscious, are at least as worthy of scrutiny. Take the recent issue of a pay increase for federal employees. Why did the press give it such favorable coverage, accepting without question that those officials make less than people holding comparable jobs in the private sector? Perhaps because they now make pretty good incomes themselves–more than the lunch money they like to claim. The result was that reporters felt some bond to the federal employees and their coverage of the pay increase was remarkably sympathetic. As it turned out, of course, positive press coverage didn’t help convince the public that the pay raise was deserved; thousands of letters poured into Congress opposing it. The increase went through thanks to some legislative sleight-of-hand but no thanks to the positive press. Which just goes to show that at least in those cases when reporters try to wield their power along the lines of their own self-interest, my friend might be right after all.

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