View Mobile Site

Most popular today

  • Bookmark and Share

Play some games on the Courier
Search for valuable coupons and print them out

Courier Friends to Follow

Journalism is failing

POSTED: October 7, 2009 9:12 a.m.
A central aspect of the art of politics in Washington is getting information to the people. Determining what the White House, Congress and the people will focus on — and, just as important, what the content of debate will be — preoccupies politicians at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and legions of lobbyists, pundits, strategists and consultants.
One major institution looms large in these calculations: the national media. Not only has it historically played a vital role in informing the people and focusing attention on issues, but also it has a considerable impact on how we talk about them. What we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio and see on television or online helps shape public policy.
The crosscurrents of reasoned discourse and angry outbursts that have characterized the debate on health-care reform are a perfect illustration of how coverage by the mainstream media, the exhortations of talk radio hosts and extreme theories spread through the blogosphere combine to influence the dialogue of democracy.
You can find the crucial role that an independent media plays in a democracy in any basic journalism text. Unlike partisan commentators and bloggers, its first obligation is to the truth: to provide the basic information that a self-governing people relies on to make discerning judgments. This means that journalists have a heavy responsibility to check the facts and be accurate, since their fundamental role is to foster understanding of issues, players and government, not to stoke contempt or praise for them.
The press is representative of democracy work. If it does its job, it maintains a healthy skepticism of all players. It should perform vital oversight not only of government, but also of the special interests that seek to influence it. It should provide a forum for public dialogue. It should report comprehensively on issues in a manner that does not reduce them to sound bites. And it should strive to help readers, listeners and viewers understand what is significant and what is not.
Without a robust, independent and professionally competent media helping Americans understand our government and politics, our democracy will fail.
This historic role of the press is under siege today. In part, of course, it’s being undermined by the sorry financial state of many newspapers and mainstream news programs. But it is also being compromised by the blurring in recent years between news and opinion, and, more destructively, between news and entertainment.
The media is more anxious to comment on the news than it is to report it. Hard news and reasoned analysis are foundering as the numbers of reporters shrink, Washington bureaus are slashed and the space devoted to the basic informative aspects of journalism gives way to reporting about politics, polls, personalities and conflicts.
And what has come to dominate the public’s attention instead? Feisty advocates for a particular point of view, belligerent personalities and wordsmiths promoted for their cleverness and temerity. Television is a particular culprit here. Many interviewers on television now deem it a virtue to offer an avalanche of opinions and a trickle of facts, to prod for angry shouting matches, to exacerbate differences and to book guests based on their partisanship, not knowledge.
It has reached the point where people attempting to be fair, reasoned and discriminating on many shows either give up or are marginalized. The political center may be alive and well among Americans on the ground, but it is very hard to find on the air.
Moreover, I am amazed at how much airtime is spent interviewing pundits about their opinions, both informed and ill-informed, and how little time is spent investigating the facts or breaking stories not already covered in the print media.
All of this, of course, concerns both responsible journalists and those they cover. Journalists need newsmakers, but they also rely on politicians with a deep understanding of a given issue to help explain it to the broader public. Likewise, politicians and policy-makers rely on journalists to build public understanding by reporting in depth on the substance of issues, not just the politics and the personalities.
A world filled with partisan blogs and hyper-bloviating commentators can work to a politician’s advantage, giving him or her the ability to stoke public support by appealing only to the faithful. But the travails besetting journalism today are alarming to those of us who believe that democracy is not simply a matter of mobilizing the masses; it is instead about searching for common ground among competing interests on difficult issues and then painstakingly building support for compromise and reasoned solutions.
All who believe in representative democracy must understand that what’s happening in journalism today has huge consequences for the quality and vitality of our republic.

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.
 

What others say about this article

  • Bookmark and Share

Commenting not available.
Commenting is not available.

 

Featured Video


Please wait ...