The bravest American journalist does not travel to war zones. He does not go undercover to write about organized crime or report on the latest deadly medical epidemic. The bravest U.S. journalist spends most of his time in an office at The New York Times. In fact, he is not even a journalist.
Paul Krugman’s columns in America’s leading newspaper attacking the Bush administration have been one of the few, consistent voices of protest in the U.S. media. Krugman is no radical. He is a MIT-trained economist whose orthodox views on free trade won him a reputation for being a hardheaded academic. He served in the Reagan administration on the highest economic advisory body in the United States: the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.
But what Krugman has seen in the last four years has outraged him. While other mainstream writers have pulled their punches, Krugman has subjected the Bush administration’s warped economic vision to powerful scrutiny. He has demonstrated that the massive tax cuts have contributed to widening the gap between rich and poor. He has called the proposed privatization of Social Security a shell game. He has called Bush’s record on job creation the worst since the Great Depression of the 1920s. He has exposed a pattern of crony capitalism in the Bush administration that makes the “moral hazards” of Korean government-chaebol relations pale in comparison.
Krugman the economist has not restricted his critique to economic matters. His columns have also blasted the administration for its lies about going to war in Iraq – the deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the attempts to link Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda. He has blasted the Republicans for stealing the election in 2000. He has criticized the administration for turning its back on world diplomacy.
What makes Paul Krugman unique is that, unlike most American journalists, he doesn’t care about access.
For journalists covering U.S. politics, access is more important than love or money. If the administration doesn’t return your calls, you can’t write your story. If the president’s press secretary doesn’t call on you at press conferences, you become a non-person.
All U.S. administrations have wielded access as a weapon against their critics. But the Bush administration has perfected this weapon. After September 11 and in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the administration implied that any criticism of its conduct was un-patriotic. It favored journalists who didn’t raise troubling questions about U.S. policy. The administration has also been aided by the increasing power of unabashedly conservative TV, radio, and even blogs. It is not just these well-funded voices but also the concentration of media ownership that squeezes out dissenting voices. In 1984, 23 corporations owned most media outlets in the United States. By 2000, this number had shrunk to six.
As recent scandals demonstrate, the Bush administration is also not above directly manipulating the media. The Education Department recently paid a right-wing columnist $240,000 to praise the administration’s educational policies. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy both produced promotional videos that TV stations subsequently broadcast as “real news.”
But the real scandal of American journalism is not these few exceptions of crooked journalists. The real scandal is that most journalists in the United States have forgotten their real job: to keep those in power on their toes. Over the last four years, the mainstream media should have been challenging the Bush administration relentlessly on a series of impeachable offenses: Enron, Halliburton, the intelligence failures around September 11, the lies of the Iraq war. The alternative media – small circulation magazines, a few Internet sites, some radio stations – followed these stories and others. But the mainstream media, with the exception of a few voices like Paul Krugman, was toothless.
Krugman argues that we have “a system in which the major media have strong incentives to present the news in a way that pleases the party in power, and no incentive not to.” Krugman doesn’t need to please anyone. He says what he pleases. And therein lies his bravery.
Munhwa Ilbo, March 8, 2005