Off the Cuff: August 2010

Journalism has changed a great deal since I started at Philadelphia magazine more than a half-century ago, and I don’t like what’s happened to it. The highlight of all these past years was the investigative journalism done by two Washington Post reporters that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. That inspired many young people to pursue journalistic careers, and journalism’s role as an impartial watchdog flourished over the next few decades. Now, of course, the Internet and a troubled economy are changing the profession. In the past few years, newspapers especially have struggled financially, and many have folded. But I’m not really concerned about the business side of journalism.

I’m worried about something else, something much more insidious: I think investigative journalism itself, in which the pursuit of the truth is paramount, is dying.  

Consider a recent story that’s been buried: On Election Day in November 2008 — the day of Barack Obama’s great triumph — two black men in paramilitary uniforms harassed voters at a polling place on Fairmount Avenue. They were members of the New Black Panther Party; one of them, Samir Shabazz, brandished a nightstick and made racial threats to voters.

A civil rights attorney and onetime campaign aide to Robert Kennedy, Bartle Bull, was at the poll that day, and he called the Panthers’ tactics “the most blatant form of voter intimidation” he had ever seen.

Initially, the Justice Department pursued the case; the two men, along with the New Black Panther Party and its national chairman, were named in a complaint. None of them responded, making it an easy win. But in May 2009, the Justice Department dropped the claims, except for a wrist-slap to Shabazz, who was forbidden to carry a weapon to a polling place in Philadelphia until 2012.

Why did the Justice Department back away from the case? Early last month, a department whistle-blower named J. Christian Adams came forward and told us: Obama administration officials believe that “civil rights law should not be enforced … against blacks or other national minorities.”

This critical story has been given tepid coverage by the Inquirer locally and largely ignored by our national press, which is very troubling because it suggests a pattern.

Remember ACORN, the left-wing voter registration organization that Obama was involved with? Or his “green jobs” czar Van Jones, who was fired after it was finally exposed that he said things like “The white polluters and the white environmentalists are essentially steering poison into the people of color communities”? Or how about this one: The Obama administration now wants NASA’s agenda to include making Muslims feel better about themselves. (I kid you not.) What do all these stories have in common? They have all been woefully underreported.

It used to be that journalists would doggedly follow a story through to the bitter end no matter where it took them. Today, the mainstream media seem to be just another advocacy group for liberal causes, letting their ideology drive the story. Journalists need to reexamine their roles; biased coverage in favor of the Obama administration is a failure of the basic ethics of the profession. Reporting on our world “without fear or favor,” the old journalistic edict the New York Times made famous long ago, requires a tenacity and will that I fear are now missing.