In the wake of Helen Thomas’s resignation, we’re confronted by a divide not between commentators and reporters, but rather between watchdogs and and purveyors of the conventional wisdom. While most news stories cite Helen Thomas’s “confrontational style” as a thing of “legend,” her record appears to be more about making news than breaking it. That glory takes away from reporting that can have a real impact, which is in steep decline. In fact, most of the Washington reporting staff was laid off while keeping Thomas on and there was no support staff left.
Just how low is the number of watchdog reporters? American Journalism Review crunched the numbers:
As daily newspapers continue to shed Washington bureaus and severely slash their staffs, fewer reporters than ever are serving as watchdogs of the federal government. Rare is the reporter who is assigned to cover one of the many federal departments, agencies or bureaus that are not part of the daily news cycle. Even if they are large, even if they are central to how Americans live their lives, most parts of the federal government–the very offices that write the rules and execute the decisions of Congress and the president–remain uncovered or undercovered by the mainstream media. Consider that not one newspaper has a reporter who works in the newsroom of the Department of Agriculture, which, with a staff of 104,000, is one of the government’s largest employers. Trade publications and bloggers pick up a bit of the slack but have neither the audience nor the impact of more traditional media outlets.
More reporters should have been onto the story of the revolving door between Minerals Management Service and BP at the time attention was heaped onto the vaunted White House Beer Summit.
Look at this chart which shows the number of watchdog reporters per federal agency:
Don’t cry for Helen Thomas. As special interests leverage government power against the interests of taxpayers who fund it, one chair in the White House press briefing room should be the last concern on our mind.