If Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., wants to find the news media at work, he should look past the confines of Capitol Hill, and not just upward to the House of Representatives’ press gallery.
Kennedy vented his frustration at the news media the other day, when he turned from the podium on the House floor. “There's two press people in this gallery,” he shouted during a discussion on the Afghanistan war. “We're talking about (Rep.) Eric Massa (D-N.Y) 24-7 on the TV. We're talking about war and peace, $3 billion, 1,000 lives and no press? No press. The press of the United States is not covering the most significant issue of national importance and that's the laying of lives down in the nation for the service of our country. It's despicable, the national press corps right now."
As Kennedy should know after serving eight terms, very little news comes from speeches made on House or Senate floor. Generally those remarks might produce a TV sound-bite at most. And, if we’re talking numbers of seats filled in either house, much of that rhetoric takes place for the benefit of C-SPAN cameras with few congressional members present. As Kennedy must also know, the real work of Congress takes place mostly in committee meetings, private negotiations, staff meetings and memo exchanges — and in myriad gatherings with lobbyists and other outsiders and experts.
It’s also worth noting that Congress, and even the whole of government in Washington, D.C., is not the be-all and end-all of news coverage in America. As important as are issues of war and peace, there are many more topics and challenges facing Americans in everyday life.
Every day, tens of thousands of print, broadcast and online journalists provide us with news and information on widely varied subjects — local job and housing statistics, crime, education, weather and a zillion other topics — including plenty of in-depth reporting on Afghanistan. In recent years, we’ve even been able to get those news reports in new ways, and around the clock.
Like Kennedy, I too would much rather see more journalists spending more time, and more news organizations spending more resources and providing more pages and air time, on serious subjects rather than fluff, features and celebrity news. Of course, Congress has its own critics as to focus and serious work.
I do know good journalism is being practiced all across the nation. From just the week of Feb. 19, courtesy of the Associated Press Managing Editors Web site, come some examples of “watchdog” journalism:
In Wichita, Kan., the Eagle reported on potential tax-document misrepresentation.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported on political contributions from defense companies seeking congressional budget earmarks.
The Press of Atlantic City, N.J., discovered that even as state budgets are stressed more every year, about $21 billion in property — about 10% of the total — in several major counties is tax-exempt.
The Post-Crescent of Appleton, Wis., reported the state program that workers rely on for unemployment checks fell below federal standards in a third of key areas.
The San Antonio Express-News reported there were more than 2,200 claims of abuse, neglect and bad medical care against San Antonio’s 55 licensed nursing homes between 2006 and 2009.
There’s more, on issues from health care to dangerous chemicals, public pensions to prisons.
Not all news reports and not all news organizations deserve high marks, and certainly some deserve low marks. Reduced staffing has limited investigative reporting and news reporting overall, even with the additional sources and resources of online news and blogging.
But Kennedy and those who saw or read about his televised rant should recognize that thousands upon thousands of journalists nationwide aren’t sitting down — in a House gallery or elsewhere — when it comes to reporting the news we all need from a free and independent press.
Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: email@example.com.