Lawrence Martin asks: Has the fourth estate lost its tenacity?

In today’s Globe and Mail, columnist Lawrence Martin asks a worthy question: have we lost our tenacity?

Martin starts by quoting James Thomson, once curator for the Neiman media fellowships at Harvard, who, in the 1970s, warned of journalists becoming part of the establishment — and of “seldom stay[ing] long enough with one central story or issue.”

Sound familiar in today’s fast-paced, 24-hour news cycle?

Martin thinks so: “The business has changed. In the 24-hour news cycle, the pressure is to move on to the next story without due diligence on the one that just happened.”

He continues:

“Much wonderment has been expressed recently on why stories of abuse of power don’t seem to hurt Stephen Harper’s government. The stories don’t stick, it is said. The reason may well be, to cite Mr. Thomson’s cautionary words, because we in the media don’t stick to them. It’s episodic journalism. We report one story, then move on. We don’t probe deeply. If a Watergate was happening, the public would never know it.”

It’s not that journalists are oblivious, he adds. Many sense something very serious is going on but they’re letting the story go.

“During the election campaign,” writes Martin, “there were stories of voter-suppression tactics by the Tories, of barring people from rallies, of pork-barrelling with G8 funds and the like. In the last week of the campaign, there was a seeming attempt by a Conservative operative to present Michael Ignatieff as an Iraq war planner. One can imagine what would happen if this kind of thing, straight out of Nixonland, happened in a U.S. campaign. The media would blow the roof off. Here, the story passed in a day or two without further comment.”

Needless to say, things are looking pretty grim if Martin’s assessment is right. How bad could it get? Well, pretty bad, writes Martin.

“In a majority government, particularly one headed by an all-controlling Prime Minister, one of the few checks on power is strong journalism. It is what holds the government to account. If the standards of the media decline in carrying out this function, the standards and quality of democracy itself will decline.”