Government and the press: partners in crime

Or so says the Mises Institute‘s William L. Anderson in a provocative essay, “The Press and the State.” Writing of his days as a working journalist in Tennessee:

In a word, government was our lifeline, and while there was somewhat (but only somewhat) of an adversarial relationship between news reporters and government officials, as I look back, I see that government and the press were and are mutually dependent upon each other.

Thus, it is in the interest of the press not only for government to be big and intrusive, but also for it to grow. For all of the vaunted talk of the press being the “watchdog” of government, if anything, the modern news media is government’s lapdog, and the implications for a free society are enormous.

I don’t think it is quite as clear-cut as that, but Anderson is definitely on to something. He also discusses the antipathy journalists in his day had toward the business beat. I think that has clearly changed, as the Enron story alone shows. There’s a lot more interest in quality coverage of the economy and of business trends, between the skyrocketing rate of stock-market participation, the tech boom and bust, Microsoft trial and more.

But another aspect of covering government that is very attractive to journalists is that it’s a lot easier. As difficult as accessing government records can sometimes be, accessing private records is even more difficult. What journalists crave more than anything is information. Without new information, there’s no “news,” by definition. Without “news,” there’s nothing to write about. Journalists need something to scrutinize, and because government is funded through taxpayer dollars, journalists have an excellent claim on any and all information about the doings of government.

What big government does, without fail, is provide news. An endless stream of records are generated, press releases are issued, reports are done, studies are conducted, hearings are held — it goes on forever. If nothing else, huge government makes news. I must admit that as resistant as I was to the idea of a student government at Columbia, the prospect excited the newshound in me. I’m graduating this year, so I won’t get much chance to really cover what the SGA, but it will be a great source of play news for Chronicle writers in years to come.

If government were as small as libertarians believe it should be, what would journalists write about? There would of course still be plenty to cover. It would make journalists’ lives a lot harder, though. And I think that, at a subconscious level, that plays into the average journalist’s bias in favor of government control over individual liberty.