I get a lot of e-mail at my job as the managing editor for a group of weekly newspapers and my regular readers know that I like to share some of it from time to time. Here’s something I thought was of interest to the blog world as well.
The Press is Good, But Not Good Enough
By Lee Hamilton
These have been bracing times for those of us who believe that an energetic press is key to the health of American democracy. Matters of great importance to this country – the proper extent and reach of presidential power; how money and lobbying affect policy-making on Capitol Hill; the conduct of the war in Iraq – have been getting a thorough workout in the media over the past year.
So this might seem like an odd time to take the press to task for its shortcomings. Yet that is precisely what is in order at the moment.
An energetic press corps sits at the heart of a free society and is essential to the proper functioning of Congress. It helps set the national agenda. It enables people to be heard. It provides a forum for the arguments, discussions and debates that comprise the marketplace of ideas. It acts as a watchdog and makes it possible for the American people to hold those in power accountable.
Yet all too often, journalists and their editors fall short of their responsibilities. Many journalists in Washington rely too heavily on official sources for their information, and believe “cultivating” those sources to be more important than risking offending them. They follow the pack, rather than pursue stories that no one else has covered.
Too often, they try for a spurious “balance” or yield to the tyranny of “evenhandedness,” making two sides of an issue appear even, when in fact they are not. It is most worrisome that investigative reporting is going out of style, and that the press has let slip its oversight role – its responsibility to look into every nook and cranny of government, and shed light on the doings of officialdom.
Perhaps the Washington press corps is getting its legs under it now. I hope so. I want the press to be skeptical, professional, independent, and self-disciplined. I want it to act on the belief that good, accurate, straightforward reporting is the best antidote to cant, complacency, incompetence and dishonesty within the halls of government. Because if the press doesn’t fulfill its role in our democracy, who will?
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years
I agree with Mr. Hamilton, but what he fails to mention are the commercial pressures that taint and shape what we see, hear and read.
When asked whether or not I think “the media” is liberal or conservative, my response has long been “neither.” When I think of “the media” I don’t think of the reporters on the street (they do have opinions), but rather the owners – largely corporate – whose financial expectations and political agendas have a major impact on news coverage.
The political agenda of those corporations is one of self-preservation and that goal does not always tie into an easily described ideology.
You can control the outcome of events by controlling the choices one has to reach that outcome. Cut the news budgets in the name of profit and you will make an impact on content.
The press is only as “energetic” as its owners allow them to be.
More and more of the national news we are offered is “easy.” It’s gleaned from press releases and news conferences with sometimes too little investigation behind it. This is not the result of having poor reporters or editors, but news budgets that restrict the ability of those people to do their jobs.
And more and more of the lines between what are entertainment, news and punditry are blurring. For example, Bill O’Reilly likes to cast himself as a reporter, rather than a commentator, and too many people chose to believe him.
On the local level, people can pick up the phone and call folks such as myself to ask questions about coverage, but on the national level we’re stuck. Do you think that GE really cares what we thought of The Today Show’s coverage of the study determining which kind of fabric makes a woman’s backside appear larger?
Is that newsworthy enough to be on the top-ranked national morning television show?