Last week I posed this question: sure, bloggers are biased and sloppy and agenda-driven and more than a little nuts, but compared to what? What is the logical basis for reposing automatic trust in "professional" "mainstream" journalists, and given them the presumption of thoroughness, good faith, or neutrality?
I'd like to thank Jan Caldwell, Public Affairs Director for the San Diego County Sheriff's Office, for helping me make my point.
Recently Ms. Caldwell — who is responsible for the relationship between the Sheriff's office and the press — was on a panel called "Grade the Media." As LAist reported, she explained why she thinks bloggers shouldn't get the same respect — or press credentials — that "professional" journalists do:
You can sit with your Apple laptop and your fuzzy slippers, you can be an 800-pound disabled man that can't get out of bed and be a journalist, because you can blog something. Does that give you the right—because you blog in your fuzzy slippers out of your bedroom and you don't go out and you haven't gotten that degree—should you be called a journalist?
Or should you be like Pauline [unclear] who graduated from journalism school and has been doing this a long time or JW or Dennis? Are you on the same par? In my estimation—and I'd like to hear from Darren and Michael on that—no. Because Pauline and JW and Matt and the others that have been doing this a long time and they know the questions to ask, as will you. But if you're just sitting at home with your laptop blogging and you just want to get under my skin or you're CityBeat—left to Lenin, oh my God—then, yeah. So I drop that out on you all: what do you all think of that?
That is no normal act of public relations. That is the behavior of a public relations professional.
Perhaps even more revealing, though, was this:
To start, 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 spectacle. They 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.)
Recently Radley Balko has been doing a "raid of the day" series for the Huffington Post, in which every day he profiles a brutal or incompetent or outrageous police raid, thus calling into question our system's tolerance for lawless police tactics. This is the sort of reporting Radley has been doing for years. You will find very, very few "mainstream" reporters engaging in such relentless criticism and questioning of the criminal justice system. That's not because there aren't many talented reporters. There are. Rather, I submit that it's because too many reporters find the price too high. Too many reporters would rather get that hot tip from a cop about a piece of evidence against a defendant than risk alienating their state sources.
Too many people would rather have the approval of the Jan Caldwells of the system than call the system out.
I'll keep my fuzzy slippers, thank you.