Just when the imminent arrival of the Obama administration sparks talk of everything from a new New Deal to a second Great Society, there's one element missing from the familiar mix in Washington: a robust press corps.
As Richard Perez-Pena points out in today's Times, a wave of cutbacks and layoffs at newspapers has shrunk the number of reporters working in D.C. You don't have to be a fan of inside-the-Beltway journalism to see this as very bad news.
As media scholars have pointed out, Washington journalism isn't always the watchdog that it is cracked up to be. Inward-looking, quick to establish a consensual "narrative," and above all dependent for information on many of the elite sources that they cover, Washington journalists have a mixed record.
Journalists may like to remember the courage of Woodward and Bernstein in Watergate, but they were often alone in their willingness to take on the White House. As far back as the early days of the Vietnam War and as recently as the run up to the war in Iraq, Washington journalists have amplified the conventional wisdom more than they have challenged it.
However, when there are vigorous two-party debates, and obvious violations of the law, Washington journalists have done valuable work to monitor power and explain what is happening to the rest of us. Their record may be uneven, but I would rather work with them than without them.
The solution to the problem of relying on official sources in Washington can be addressed by developing greater expertise among journalists and by cultivating sources beyond the usual elites. But all of that won't work if there are too few reporters in our Washington.
If the mainstream newspapers can't find ways to maintain their bureaus and reporters in Washington, we'll have to find a new way of covering the Federal government.