One Reason the Press is Always So Statist

Why is the media always so deferential to the state?  The reasons may be in part ideological, but there is a public choice explanation as well -- the state (particularly local police and crime stories) generate most of its headlines, and so they have a financial incentive to retain access to the source of so much of their content.

Perhaps even more revealing, though, was this:

To start, [San Diego County Sheriff's Office] spokeswoman Jan Caldwell explained to the room full of journalists why it is so important to be nice to her: "If you are rude, if you are obnoxious, if you are demanding, if you call me a liar, I will probably not talk to you anymore. And there's only one sheriff's department in town, and you can go talk to the deputies all you want but there's one PIO."

Here we have the heart of the matter. "Professional" journalists may, indeed, be brilliant, talented, well-trained, professional, with an abiding appetite for hard-hitting but neutral reporting. Yet professional journalists also depend on relationships. Ms. Caldwell calls that fact out, sending law enforcement's core message to the press: if you want access, play the game.

The game colors mainstream media coverage of criminal justice. Here's my overt bias: I'm a criminal defense attorney, a former prosecutor, and a critic of the criminal justice system. In my view, the press is too often deferential to police and prosecutors. They report the state's claims as fact and the defense's as nitpicking or flimflam. They accept the state's spin on police conduct uncritically. They present criminal justice issues from their favored "if it bleeds it leads" perspective rather than from a critical and questioning perspective, happily covering deliberate spectacle rather than calling it out as spectacleThey accept leaks and tips and favors from law enforcement, even when those tips and leaks and favors violate defendants' rights, and even when the act of giving the tip or leak or favor is itself a story that somebody ought to be investigating. In fact, they cheerfully facilitate obstruction of justice through leaks. They dumb down criminal justice issues to serve their narrative, or because they don't understand them.

This "professional" press approach to the criminal justice system serves police and prosecutors very well. They favor reporters who hew to it. Of course they don't want to answer questions from the 800-pound bedridden guy in fuzzy slippers in his mother's basement. But it's not because an 800-pound bedridden guy can't ask pertinent questions. It's because he's frankly more likely to ask tough questions, more likely to depart from the mutually accepted narrative about the system, less likely to be "respectful" in order to protect his access. (Of course, he might also be completely nuts, in a way that "mainstream" journalism screens out to some extent.)

Which is why, despite Joe Arpaio's frequent antics that make national news, it falls to our local alt-weekly here in Phoenix rather than our monopoly daily paper to do actual investigative reporting on the Sheriff's office.


  1. Brian McNary:

    Excellent observation. This all comes back to the "obedient workforce" doctrine. (I made that up)
    In my past life, the press would come in every Monday. If they wanted access to information the inferred rule was that they play nice. If they didn't play nice, I wouldn't talk to them. I didn't just infer this- I practiced this. I was appointed. If you were elected however, you could really take advantage of this.

    Ultimately, the reporters were forced to play and write nice if they wanted to maintain access and keep their jobs. This is what obedient workers do to survive. Employers don't want confrontation- they want obedient workers and they get them. Those are the people who suck up and keep their jobs. Unfortunately, "investigative" local reporting doesn't happen because of this. The only time it happens is when a public party does something so overtly egregious- that to support such behavior- might be the death of you. Those officials become easy prey for the obedient class.

    The Maricopa Co. Sheriff has tremendous power and influence. Nobody in the obedient class will ever oppose such power. People are cowards. That's just the way it is.

  2. john mcginnis:

    I understand the point, and playing nice makes a Jurno's job easier. But truth be told, in most states, police reports where the rubber meets the road are public documents. Its a matter of how much work the Jurno wants to do. But going the easy route thru the PIO, is only getting one side of the story and if the Press intends to only play nice they only get the States position on matters. As a consequence the Press have abandoned their sole purpose for existing -- challenging the State.

  3. bigmaq1980:

    I've heard similar explanation for the White House press corps (or should I say corpse, deferring to Obama's pronunciation).

  4. MingoV:

    I don't buy the better access explanation. Surveys of new journalism students show that they are almost exclusively left-wingers. Journalism faculty and peer pressure reinforce their left-wing beliefs.

    Left-wingers strongly favor large, powerful, paternalistic, redistributionist governments. Journalist left-wingers use their media to support left-wing politicians and demonize all others. Government workers and politicians give journalists access because the former know they will get good press from the latter.

  5. Jess1:

    "Why is the media always so deferential to the state"

    You say that as if somewhat surprised. Newsflash, but that's been SOP since the scribe, busily pressing the sharp end of a papyrus stalk into a wet clay tablet recording official malfeasance, was startled by the king's exclamation of "off with his head". To be sure, there was a period in American journalism (say, 60s to 1990) in which phrases like "speaking truth to power" and "afflict the comfortable" were bandied about, but there was no truth in that news...

  6. Dan Sherman:

    This theory falls apart when you consider that the press is almost NEVER deferential to conservative government or entities. Just liberal ones. And your Sheriff Joe analogy is thin because I see WAY more negative press about him in our local newspapers than I do positive press. And I live in Gilbert where we actually love the man, despite his many faults.

  7. obloodyhell:

    Nope. Not buying it. Because the media has, on many levels, FAR more power than the police do. You want to squeeze us out? Well, here's an interesting rumor we've heard about you. And here's another. And another. We also have these complaints by citizens. And this one. And this one. And this one. This group argues you're not providing proper support for the poor. And blacks. And ...

    Police don't want BAD PRESS.

    If they tried to pull this crap the press would rip them a new ASSHOLE if they were actually interested in TAKING ON the Statists.

    No, there's a much, much simpler reason why the media is so often pro-statist....