Our Hour of Need  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   July/August 2002

Our Hour of Need   

Two vivid reminders of the importance of journalistic scrutiny

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Most of us at one time or another have worked in large institutions--a major corporation here, a government bureaucracy there, maybe even a top research university with a championship basketball team. Anyone who has is certainly familiar with organizational behavior, and one of the most enduring of institutional dynamics is the CYA reflex. Which is to say that when a problem arises, all too often the default position is not how to fix it but how to bury it.

For the past several months we have been witnessing two of the nation's most powerful institutions struggling to deal with repercussions of the CYA reflex. One is our government intelligence establishment; the other is the American Catholic Church.

If ever two cases underscored the need for a vigilant media, here they are.

From Boston to L.A., the influential clerics of the American church have had their red birettas spun by the unraveling of the priest sex scandal. Elements of this story have been around for nearly two decades, but it seems to have more traction this time because the scope and severity of the problem can no longer be denied (see "The Priest Scandal," May). It's right there in the church's unwritten but widely understood policy of shuffling troubled priests from unsuspecting parish to unsuspecting parish, and in its multimillion-dollar hush-money payments. After a generation of treating a crime as a sin, the bishops were desperate to keep the lid on.

Perhaps I'm too close to this story to have proper perspective. I'm a Catholic who has written about the contemporary priesthood, including the incredible challenge of leading a celibate life. I also learned, through my hometown paper, that a high-school classmate of mine who went on to the priesthood has been one of the disgraced. My sadness is exceeded only by my anger at such a betrayal of trust.

Every Catholic, every parent, every concerned citizen deserves to know what has happened here. But were it not for good old-fashioned reporting and court access fights by the press, first in Boston and then in communities around the nation, you can be sure we would still be in the dark about predatory priests.

Although a very different story, the uproar over what clues the FBI, CIA and other security agencies had about a potential terrorist attack, and when they had them, was similarly slow to surface, then built in a hurry. Starting in early May, various national news outlets reported that the nation's intelligence apparatus had tantalizing snatches of information that might have added up to a picture if a savvy analyst had had them all in front of him.

Few have seriously suggested, at least on the basis of what has been revealed thus far, that the Bush administration could have pieced together the clues in such a way to actually prevent the September 11 attacks. Indeed, part of what made that dark day so harrowing was the breathtaking ingenuity of the evil. So when the New York Post ran a front-page picture of the Twin Towers and a headline that blared "Bush Knew," it was the most irresponsible kind of scandal-mongering.

By contrast, what is genuinely scandalous is the fact that we spend tens of billions of dollars a year for intelligence gathering, only to have turf wars and the CYA reflex keep our agencies from sharing it with one another. As Coleen Rowley, the no-nonsense FBI agent from Minneapolis who excoriated her own agency for its dithering and indecision, put it in congressional testimony, "I've heard there is a saying at FBI headquarters. Big cases, big problems; little cases, little problems; no cases, no problems." Does that ever have the ring of truth about it.

Congress has been looking into this bureaucratic tangle, but no rational person expects anything to come of that since politicians possess the most powerful CYA reflex of all. President Bush wants to pull disparate security, emergency and border-control agencies into a single superagency, which may be a good step, but the CIA and FBI would generally continue to operate as they do now. Who would keep an eye on them?

The same people who should have been watching all along--journalists.

This magazine has been railing for years about the steep decline in the number of reporters covering federal agencies as daily beats. We who offer such criticisms are sometimes derided as cranks and "dinosaurs" unwilling to face up to new media realities.

Well, here's a reality for you: Public institutions try desperately to suppress information – from the public and from each other. If we don't keep them honest, no one will. To refuse to do so is to be party to an Orwellian vision come true.

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