First, The Bad News

The big daily newspapers get some things right. National defense isn't one of them.

On April 4, 1998, the New York Times broke the story about the extensive military-related satellite business conducted in China by Loral Space and Communications, headed by CEO Bernard Schwartz, megadonor to the Democratic National Committee. It was a big, fast-unfolding story with all the right elements: domestic and international political intrigue, national security, and money.

Like most of what counts as Big News at the big papers, the story had impact because it presented all of these elements in a fresh, unfamiliar arena -- in this case, the world of military contractors and their commercial relationships with potentially hostile foreign powers. Now, despite the considerable fallout from the Loral story, one important question has gone unasked: Why was this subject unfamiliar? And the answer is that for years, and especially since the end of the Gulf War, the big papers have done a rather poor job of covering national defense. As often happens, looking just a little beneath the surface of a big journalism success reveals an even bigger journalism failure.

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Every day, in my work as the newspaper columnist for the online magazine Slate, I read the nation's five biggest daily newspapers -- the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and USA Today. Probably the single biggest thing I've learned in the job is this: Big News isn't always real news, and, often, real news doesn't qualify as Big News.

This is, by the way, a little-noticed corollary of the Monica Lewinsky coverage. When polls surfaced showing that the American people weren't all that concerned about President Bill Clinton's alleged dalliance, this was widely taken as a sign that his political future wasn't nearly as imperiled as it had first appeared. But it was also a sign of something else. After all, the very same papers that carried those polls were spattered with Bill and Monica stories, many on the front page under bold headlines, served up with the dramatic prose reserved for Big News. In other words, there isn't just a gulf between ordinary people and the contemporary notion of political scandal -- there's also a gulf between ordinary people and what lands in their driveways every morning.

Take another example of a hot story: tobacco. For the past few years, the papers have been breaking story after story about the deceitful world of cigarette marketing. But for most of the 34 years since the government officially condemned cigarettes as harmful, newspapers didn't do the subject anything close to justice. Even though during that time, smoking-related illnesses decimated many an American family, the big dailies blithely ignored the cigarette manufacturers' insidious ad campaigns, cash-heavy lobbying, and dubious science -- all the while raking in cigarette advertising dollars themselves. It has been only within the past year or so that these papers have even taken to using the apt trust-busting phrase "Big Tobacco."

In a media world that every day becomes increasingly frivolous, newspapers -- the front sections at least -- still represent themselves as bearers of important truths. But "important" is a subjective term, and what counts as Big News varies from paper to paper. More surprising still, one paper's lead often doesn't even make the others' front pages. One good example of such news (in)discretion: On May 8, USA Today led with the Federal Aviation Administration's order to inspect and repair many Boeing 737s, affecting 152 of the nation's most common commercial airliners. The New York Times not only chose not to lead with the story (it led with the Senate's passage of IRS reform instead), it buried it on Page 20 -- freeing up space on Page One for a piece about what had killed the artificial turf at the New York Giants' football stadium.

Journalists have many subjective preferences that can turn a story into Big News: They tend to emphasize crisis over structure, new information over deeper information, personalities over institutions, process over product, and the elite over the middle class. Now, these preferences are important, but the distortion of Big News is that it makes them everything. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way the big dailies cover defense. The annual defense budget -- yeah, that's covered. A war? You bet. But when it comes to subtler issues such as Loral's possible transfer of militarily sensitive technology to China, the papers have historically waited until it's too late to do anything.

Crisis | Certainly one of the main reasons Loral was able to fly under the Big News radar is that its transactions with China took place incrementally. There never was, in short, a Loral crisis.

Defense contractors have been selling sensitive military technology to potential U.S. adversaries in a big way since the end of the Cold War, but it's only the whiff of political scandal that got the big papers interested. And like all scandals, this one, too, will go away, which all too often means that the papers will stop covering it, leaving the underlying problem relatively unexamined.

One of the reasons there's no room for long-term coverage is that there's so much on the crisis du jour. Take today, the day I write this, May 16: The biggest story is the atom bomb tests in India (and Frank Sinatra). The press roundly criticized the U.S. intelligence community for failing to warn that these tests were coming. Typical was the New York Times' editorial, which argued that the policy folks at the State Department and the White House had fallen down on the job. Yet with the exception of the day before, the Times hadn't run any front-page coverage of India for two weeks; before that, no front-page India military stories had appeared for five weeks. Yes, the intelligence and the national security staffs are too readily distracted by the present crisis, but so are the newspapers.

Novelty | Of course the root of the crisis syndrome is that, by convention, news has to be above all new. But why? Once you let that go, lots of possibilities open up. Far more intriguing, for instance, than the dozens of stories on the record-high rates paid for Sein-off commercials would be a single piece a year from now reporting on how those commercials affected product sales.

Last spring, in the wake of the death of Pol Pot, the New York Times ran a "Week in Review" piece by Philip Shenon about exiled leaders suspected of committing atrocities who are now living freely in the U.S. and other countries. The list included El Salvador's former defense minister, Gen. José Guillermo García, and former national guard director, Col. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, both believed by the U.N. to have attempted to cover up their government's murder of three American nuns in 1980. The article also mentioned Emmanuel Constant, the former head of a Haitian paramilitary group responsible for the murder and torture of thousands of Haitians in the early 1990s. In the course of the piece, Shenon reported that all three men live legally in the United States. Why wasn't this Big News -- a front-section, front-page, or even lead story that day? Shenon didn't say why the two El Salvadorans haven't been extradited, and he explained that Constant has remained here because U.S. officials don't believe he can get a fair trial in Haiti (thus ignoring the idea that Constant could be given a fair trial here, á la Noriega). The only explanation Shenon offers is "realpolitik, money, and simple laziness." In other words, nothing much is happening with these men now, so in the journalism vernacular, there is no "peg" for the story. Isn't this beside the point? Maybe the lack of new developments is the news, calling for a story about how the State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the FBI fell down on the job.

Additionally, other papers neglected to pick up on the importance of this story, or they simply failed to cover it. That is the usual pattern: Until a story broken elsewhere reaches a level of impact so great that to ignore it would be to risk looking stupid, newspapers resist writing about stories that other papers have covered. They'd rather find "new" news.

I'll bet you a case of your favorite microbrew you don't know about the following two stories: (1) Despite years of Pentagon denials of Gulf War Syndrome's legitimacy, three months before the war, the Department of Defense prepared a report for the Air Force indicating that bombing Iraq's chemical weapons facilities was "certain" to release deadly nerve gas; and (2) U.S. officials have declared 20 Russian research organizations, from universities to intelligence agencies, ineligible for U.S. aid because they are suspected of having provided missile technology to Iran.

These stories are too important for you not to have heard about, wouldn't you say? The reason they are news to you now rather than news to you then is that both were lead stories in USA Today. The first ran on August 14, 1997, and the second on April 16, 1998. But USA Today, despite its large national circulation and general quality, is inordinately ignored by its snobbish competitors, who especially don't want to be seen chasing "McPaper" on a story, for God's sake.

The best solution to the dailies' novelty addiction is for them to engage in more of what media critic Paul H. Weaver calls the "routinization" of the news -- giving prime page space over to deliberative, nonbreaking stories. The best current examples of this are the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times' "Column One." In their own way, each of these tries to cut through the particulars of the immediate news cycle to get at a story's lasting meaning. Another remedy would be to create a Pulitzer Prize for the best story in an unfairly ignored genre: follow-up.

Personality/Process | As Washington Monthly editor Charles Peters often notes, it's a lot easier to do a story about Senator X and Senator Y jousting with each other over a mine-safety bill than it is to do one on mine safety. For the former, all you have to do is watch from the gallery and make some phone calls. For the latter, you have to get in or at least near a mine. Similarly, it doesn't take as much skill to write an interesting story about the Senate's conflict over a nomination for, say, secretary of defense as it does to write an interesting story about how the Pentagon is working under the guy once he's had the job awhile. Conflict is inherently dramatic. The Pentagon is not. So the bias is understandable, but not without cost. Journalism's fixation on personalities over process gives us, for example, too much information on politics and not enough on government, and too much on corporate moves and not enough on product and service performance.

A textbook example is the merger story, a staple front-section business article. The thoughts and feelings of the CEOs toward the move and each other get most of the attention. For instance, in the Wall Street Journal's May 8 report on the Daimler/Chrysler merger, you have to wade pretty far down to get to "revenues," "purchasing outlays," or "share-exchange ratios." First you get the secret hotel meetings, the furtive use of code names, the artful deflection of an outsider's nosy question. There's even, according to the Journal, an important shower scene. And of course, once the liaison is on the verge of consummation, there is the age-old question of whose name to take. "It was a very emotional issue at the end, emotional on both sides," Daimler's chairman is quoted as saying. These aren't business stories -- they're about how titans romance each other. Why does the ordinary reader need to know about that?

Elitism | There's another reason for all this breathless reporting about CEO mating habits: To a profound degree, as a result of what James Fallows calls, in Breaking the News, journalism's "status revolution," reporters and editors at big newspapers now tend to identify with the upper class. This helps explain why, for example, personal finance coverage is ever expanding while aggressive reporting about corporate misdeeds is not. More likely than not, the effusive merger stories are written and edited by people who own stock affected by the developments. That makes it all the easier for newspapers to forget that most Americans don't own a single share. How else to explain why the New York Times interrupted one of its early stories on the bomb tests in India to note the impact the U.S.'s sanctions were having on the Bombay, New Delhi, and Madras stock markets?

The money-class bias hurts other coverage as well. It contributes, for example, to the woeful underreporting on this country's military leadership. During the Gulf War, the major dailies waited until just before the shooting started to file their first reports on the military leaders who, in a matter of hours, would hold the country's fate in their hands; and during the recent inspection dustups with Iraq, only the Journal bothered to profile Gen. Anthony Zinni, who would be the next Schwarzkopf if the balloon went up. Third-tier presidential candidates who concede the morning after New Hampshire get more ink than the folks with launching authority.

Reporters and editors downplay this area because, as a rule, they have never served in the military themselves and have little feel for or interest in its activities or its mindset. So while journalists seem to find CEOs endlessly fascinating, they readily believe that service members are more or less indistinguishable from one another (forgetting, if they ever knew, that Meade was no Grant and Paulus was no Rommel) and, although they might hesitate to admit it, a little dense besides. Sometimes this leaks out: In that (very good) Journal profile of Zinni, reporter Thomas Ricks wrote that the paradigm for a Marine officer was to be a "knuckle-dragging intellectual."

Similarly, although Ivy-educated, Lexus-driving reporters would never come out and say it, they must at some level believe the lives of servicemen are not worth much. How else to explain the minuscule coverage of defense procurement fraud? Last May, a defense contractor was convicted in a fraud case for selling defective parts for the arresting cable systems aircraft carriers use to catch planes as they land. If these cables fail, aircrews could plunge to watery graves and flight deck personnel could quite literally get cut in half. Now it's bad enough that the executive's sentence was only three months in prison and three months of house arrest, but it's inexcusable that the only big paper to cover the story was the New York Times, which buried its tiny piece deep in the metro section. Being willing to kill service members for a profit should be Big News. On similar grounds, it's absurd that the exponential growth of sales by U.S. defense contractors to foreign governments gets so little coverage. The last five U.S. military actions have exposed U.S. troops to adversaries who had previously received U.S. weapons, military technology, or training. Where are the pieces in the Times and the Journal on this? It's precisely their absence that made the Loral story seem so stunning.

Press elitism is a serious obstacle because it erodes both the moral detachment that protects reporters from being lobbied onto or off of a story and the cognitive detachment that enables them to see facts for what they are. Just as seriously, it promotes a kind of "great-man theory" in which reporters and editors don't have to conform to the rules they apply to everybody else.

For all the attention paid by the papers to the Monica matter, which among them has ever fired a reporter or editor for adultery? Or, more to the point still, has done so and then written about it? Like all big papers, the Los Angeles Times thrives on the local corruption story. Its pages are a parade of contractors, city officials, and politicians with till-bound thumbs. Yet, recently, when it discovered that one of its own executives had embezzled nearly $800,000 from the paper, it didn't print a word about it until it was a matter of court record.

Newspapers are not going to become extinct anytime soon. The Internet will eventually be their salvation, because it promises the papers something that heretofore has both bedeviled and eluded them: television's agility. Finally, newspapers are communicating at the speed of light. But stories like the Loral caper show that they still need to think harder about what to shine it on.