Last weekend, reports on the Internet, in the New York Post and on
the BBC told the story of young Danny Williams and his quest to
determine whether Bill Clinton is really, as his prostitute-mother
claims, his Daddy.
The results of a DNA test should set the record straight very soon.
But the question I was asked on radio talk shows all over America
yesterday was: Why hasn’t the “mainstream media” covered this story yet?
It’s a good question — a darn good question.
Let me try to answer it, not as a media critic, but as a news
professional who has spent most of my adult life running daily
newspapers in major markets.
There are a couple of institutional problems at play.
When we say “the media,” these days, what we’re really talking about
is a very small group of newspapers and one — count ‘em, one — wire
service that controls nearly the entire flow of mainstream news. That’s
it. What Americans know from the establishment press is based on the
decisions and the reporting of a handful of people.
There are very few establishment news organizations that are actually
doing any serious investigative or enterprising reporting. When they do,
they count on it being recycled by the Associated Press, which really
holds a monopoly nowadays as the major wire service. If it doesn’t make
it on AP, it didn’t happen. And it doesn’t get on AP unless it is either
written by one of their small coterie of national reporters or it
appears first in The New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Boston
Globe, Chicago Tribune or another of those elite “serious” national
Think of how this story broke — as a result of enterprising
reporting by a “trashy” tabloid magazine and hyped by the dreaded
Internet. If there is one entity more despised by the media elitists
than the tabloid industry, it’s the fledgling independent Internet news
business. Don’t you think it bugs journalists that Matt Drudge and his
laptop have more influence than 99 percent of the daily newspapers in
this country? Don’t you think it bugs the elite old media, as they
battle trends of declining circulation and ratings, that WorldNetDaily,
after 19 months of Internet publishing, got more than 1 million hits on
Monday of this week?
The other institutional problem is that the news media has truly lost
its way, its moorings, its sense of purpose, its mission.
I know I have said this before, but it bears repeating. The central
role of a free press in a free society is to serve as a watchdog on
government. From Thomas Paine to Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Fathers
understood this. The American press instinctively understood it and
lived by that code for nearly two centuries.
Sometime in the last 30 years or so, the press drifted in another
direction. Ask most reporters and editors today what the central role of
a free press in a free society is and you’re likely to get a blank
stare. That was not the case a generation ago, or even when I entered
the business during the Watergate era.
Nailing government officials for fraud, waste, corruption and abuse
were always the hallmarks of good reporting. Pulitzer Prizes were
awarded for holding government officials accountable for their words and
deeds. Not any more.
In the 1990s, the U.S. press establishment crawled into bed with the
government. Reporting on government today means rewriting press
releases, transcribing the words of official spokesmen, standing in
front of the Capitol with the videocam on and repeating what you just
read in The New York Times. Today, the government-media complex is more
scary than the military-industrial complex.
And that’s how a story like the Danny Williams story can go virtually
unreported in the establishment press — even though the whole nation is
talking about it. Without the Internet, you could learn more about the
details of this U.S. story in London than you could in Washington. Not a
word in the big papers. Not a word on the semi-official U.S. news agency
It’s just one more example of how the “mainstream press” is digging
its own grave. And it’s why the independent new media, which actually
performs the mission the old media were created to perform, are
experiencing such unprecedented growth.