Play­ing the an­gles: Press corps frac­tures as news bu­reaus wane

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JEN­NIFER HARPER

The Wash­ing­ton press corps is no longer a ho­moge­nous gag­gle of main­stream me­dia re­porters. It has be­come a hy­brid coali­tion of un­re­lated tribes that ul­ti­mately could short­change the Amer­i­can pub­lic in fa­vor of spe­cial in­ter­ests.

In the past two decades, the num­ber of Amer­i­can news or­ga­ni­za­tions ac­cred­ited to cover Congress has fallen by more than two-thirds, with more shrink­age to come, ac­cord­ing to an in­dus­try study re­leased Feb. 11 by the Project for Ex­cel­lence in Jour­nal­ism, which warned that the find­ings “may shock.”

The num­ber of wire ser­vices and news­pa­pers with Con­gress­cre­den­tialed re­por ters has fallen from 564 in 1985 to 160 in early 2007, and more cut­backs have been made since then, the re­port said. “The num­ber of mag­a­zines and gen­eral-in­ter­est pe­ri­od­i­cals fell 75 per­cent to 22, down from 89,” the or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ported.

In the mid-1980s, 71 newspa- pers from 35 states had Wash­ing­ton bu­reaus; now there are 32, rep­re­sent­ing 23 states. An­tic­i­pated cut­backs would fur­ther shrink that num­ber to 25. And the num­ber of news­pa­pers that get Wash­ing­ton-based re­port­ing from bu­reaus rep­re­sent­ing cor­po­rate chains has dwin- dled by more than half in the same pe­riod — from 551 to 262.

Those miss­ing news or­ga­ni­za­tions have been re­placed by highly tar­geted niche pub­li­ca­tions that cover the en­vi­ron­ment, de­fense, tech­nol­ogy and en­ergy is­sues, among other things.

With pricey sub­scrip­tions and care­ful im­age man­age­ment, th­ese smaller up­starts seek a pol­i­cy­mak­ing au­di­ence, and their num­bers have in­creased by more than half since the mid-1980s — jump­ing from 138 pub­li­ca­tions in 1986 to 223 by 2007. Trade mag­a­zines rose from 172 to 214.

“Wash­ing­ton jour­nal­ism has be­come more elit­ist in its at­ti­tude,” said Charles Peters, founder of the Wash­ing­ton Monthly. “It’s be­come a more ed­u­cated elite, so they iden­tify with those above them, not those from be­low. This has hap­pened without jour­nal­ists be­ing aware of it.”

Mean­while, for­eign news or- ga­ni­za­tions have beefed up their Wash­ing­ton cov­er­age dra­mat­i­cally since the State Depart­ment opened a for­eign press of­fice. In 1968, there were 160 for­eign jour­nal­ists work­ing in Wash­ing­ton. Now there are 796, with the largest share of the in­flux hail­ing from Asia — par­tic-

“Wash­ing­ton jour­nal­ism has be­come more elit­ist in its at­ti­tude,” said Charles Peters, founder of the Wash­ing­ton Monthly. “It’s be­come a more ed­u­cated elite, so they iden­tify with those above them, not those from be­low. This has hap­pened without jour­nal­ists be­ing aware of it.”

ularly China — the Mid­dle East and Africa.

“The pic­ture they are send­ing abroad of the coun­try is a far dif­fer­ent one than the world re­ceived when the in­for­ma­tion came mainly via Amer­i­can­based wire ser­vices and ca­ble news,” the study said.

A show­case for the trend is the Ara­bic satel­lite TV chan­nel Al Jazeera, which opened a small bureau when Pres­i­dent Bush took of­fice in 2001. It now has 105 staffers — al­most as large a pres­ence in town as CBS News, with 129.

Th­ese seis­mic shifts don’t ap­pear to be ran­dom, how­ever. The re­searchers the­o­rized that it was a shift in the “bal­ance of in­for­ma­tion,” away from heart­land Amer ica and into the prover­bial mar­ble halls of power.

“It con­cen­trates knowl­edge in the hands of those who want to in­flu­ence votes,” said Dean Ba­quet, New York Times Wash­ing­ton bureau chief.

Law­mak­ers “will not be judged by what they do for their states, but by what they do or don’t do for spe­cial in­ter­ests. That’s not good for democ­racy,” Mr. Ba­quet said.

The three-month study was based on 60 re­cent in-depth in­ter­views with Wash­ing­ton-based re­porters, ed­i­tors, pub­lish­ers and other news ex­ec­u­tives in print, on­line and broad­cast­based news or­ga­ni­za­tions.

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