11 April 2009

Apart from explaining the bribes and backroom deals that helped keep Robert Moses in power in New York for over three decades, The Power Broker has a lot to say about an issue that is currently receiving a lot of attention: the role of newspapers in modern American democracy.

The book does not cast newspapers in a flattering light. By courting publishers and bribing reporters, Moses was able to grossly manipulate media coverage of his construction empire. The Times comes off looking worst of all (the only paper that stood up to Moses at the height of his power was, ironically, the Post.) Eventually the newspapers turned on him and exposed scandals that led to his downfall, but they were literally thirty years late.

The message is this: if newspapers are democracy's only hope, we're in a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, they probably are the best way to keep public officials accountable. Investigative journalism is expensive and difficult, which categorically rules out television news as a replacement. The blogosphere might break a few stories, but I doubt bloggers can match the investigative skills (not to mention journalistic ethics) of veteran reporters. If newspapers survive in more than a few cities, I will be happy. I'll also be hoping that media critics on the internet will be able to call out newspapers when they're not doing their job so that Moses's tactics don't work in the future.

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