Walter Pincus

Inside Media: National Security and the Media

September 07, 2008

Guest: Walter Pincus

In an election year, people will criticize the media for having a bias. Ask Walter Pincus, and he will say bias is not only beneficial but is the original purpose of newspapers.

"That's what the First Amendment is all about," said Pincus, who is the National Security reporter for The Washington Post.

"Newspapers started as party papers. If you're a citizen in a democracy, you're not supposed to pick up one piece of news and get everybody's point of view. It's impossible anyway, but the fact is that you, in a democracy, are supposed to read everything you can, listen to what you can, and make up your own mind."

Media organizations have a duty to take a stand on issues, Pincus said. He expressed concern that media members too often react to statements placed before them rather than seek out issues.

"It's the enterprise part [that is absent]," he said. "One of the things that is missing in journalism is how much media organizations have their own agenda and say 'I don't care what the President said today. We've heard that before. We're going to do something else that we think is important.'"

Pincus cited coverage of the beginning stages of the Iraq War as evidence. He was one of the few reporters who challenged the Bush administration's justification for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion in Iraq. But his stories often appeared inside the newspaper and not on the front page.

"[The President] would go out and he would make a speech, and we'd cover every speech, and nothing new was said, but we'd report it every day," he said.

This is part of what Pincus calls the "public relations society," in which journalists report only on the carefully crafted statements government officials make, rather than on their actions.

"Prior to the Reagan administration, The Washington Post never had a standing story for the White House," Pincus said. "They'd cover the White House if the president did something, or if we learned the White House was doing something."

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