I have had mixed feelings about teaching "News Media and Political Power during this presidential election season.
My premise is that the facts matter, and that journalists are in an ideal position to hold the powerful accountable. This is what I tried to do for 19 years as a reporter. The news media also must be held accountable themselves-because they, too, are among the powerful forces that shape our policy, politics and preoccupations. That is why I quit journalism in 1988 to be part of a group that is trying to hold the news media themselves accountable, and to improve their quality and role, from within the business.
Before I became a full time teacher in 2003, I saw enough candidates, presidents, and political campaigns up close to be hard-hearted about politics. Nevertheless, I was particularly disheartened by the 2004 presidential election. It was a huge victory for those who set out to destroy the ability of the news media to serve as watchdogs.
Now…don't get me wrong. The news media have done a lot to wreck their own watchdog role since Watergate. We journalists have been own worst enemies! If we hadn't done a lot of stupid things -and failed to be more transparent about our own limitations, mistakes and yes, biases-we would have more credibility when we write about the realities of Iraq, the reality of changing tax policies, the reality of the Social Security situation, the real costs and benefits of job outsourcing, the choices our government faced about securing the homeland or pouring money into the Iraq war, when we write about global warming, the plight of women, the Soviet style leadership of Putin, and so on.
The news media--the broadcast networks, the newspaper chains like Gannett, the talk show culture across all media-- have too often gone for the commercial gold instead of the real news. They have too often degraded us and themselves, by focusing so much on sex, crimes, and celebrity nonsense. All along, real journalists also have been hard at work-all across America and in Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya. But they are hardly noticed in the din of talk shows and partisan attacks.
That is why no one blinked when Gen. Tommy Franks, whose miscalculations in Iraq have led to unnecessary bloodshed and backlash against America, said on Fox News after a presidential debate this October, that it was the media's fault; we had built up expectations too high about Iraq. No. It had been Tommy Franks and his colleagues who told the media what glories to expect in Iraq, and journalists reported their assessments. This time, it was clearly NOT the media's fault. Who now, will hold Tommy Franks accountable?
The assumption that it IS the media's fault may be part of why no one especially cared when the New York Times reported just before the election that the Administration had plenty of warnings about the bogus intelligence that led them into Iraq in the first place. And it is part of why CBS became the issue-rather than George Bush's integrity, which is what the National Guard story was about. The public chose to believe honorable a man (Bush) who clearly ducked his responsibilities during Vietnam, over a man (Kerry) who risked his life and saved others there. It is important to note that many people felt that all of this was simply in the past, and believe (I think correctly) that Bush is now a better man than he was, a born again Christian who has found a way to manage his alcohol problem, who now steps up honorably to his responsibilities. But he was not then; the facts are very clear, with multiple sources to prove them. Many chose instead to believe it is all about CBS and bias.
When President Bush can get away with shrugging and saying, during a debate where his facts are being challenged, that the New York Times is not credible because "you know, the media…" then we have lost our watchdog press. The attacks on the professional mainstream news media have worked. The public has accepted his dismissal of real journalism. Watergate is forgotten.
And we news consumers are partly to blame for this, too, because we are of two minds. We have access to serious news, presented in a sober and factual way, but we click away or fail to pick up the newspaper because it isn't amusing. It tugs too much at our consciences, it annoys us, it brings a 'downer" to us when we have enough challenges already in our lives. And when we do get the news, we love the gossip and trivia. It's fun, and we like to hear what our favorite celebrities are doing. We like to look at beauty and hear about its secret lives. Unless we think there's a terrorist attack, or our loved one is on the battle lines. Then we go to the media where we will get what we want, rather than be challenged by something we don't want to hear.
It is particularly galling to note in this media landscape that the news organizations which are least likely to observe the standards of verification, fairness, comprehensiveness and proportionality (the hallmarks of good journalism)-those news organizations are the very ones who with impunity call themselves "the no spin zone" and "fair and balanced." Joining Fox and Bill O'Reilly in particular are now Chris Matthews and MSNBC. They are not more honest, they are only more effective.
If the New York Times were simply out to elect liberal Democrats, as the GOP/Bush campaign constantly alleged, then why were they the original critics of Bill Clinton's new presidency? They savaged him about the Whitewater scandal, in page one investigative reports and editorials that called for a special prosecutor. Clinton gave them a special prosecutor, who was a Republican who then picked up the Monica Lewinsky sexcapades and turned that into an impeachment process. It was the "liberal biased" New York Times that wrote some of the negative profiles about Kerry throughout the primaries and into the general election. If they were in the same business as Fox and the talk show culture, they would have always come back to a refrain of support for their man. They did not. They were actually trying to be fair and balanced.
So where do we go from here?
Journalists need to keep struggling to do honest reporting. Live in truth, Vaclav Havel counseled people who were surrounded by lies during Communism. Let everything you do and say be as true as you know it. Don't build up the lies in order to have balance. Prove that they are lies. Secondly, to the public: pay attention to the watchdogs even if they are unpleasant, or annoying. See if they are right before you change the channel. There are limits to what journalism can do. It takes people to act on the facts they uncover. Insist on government accountability as much as you worry about media bias. The first is a far more serious problem, no matter what you've been told. If the journalists are dismissed, then who will hold the government accountable and tell the citizens what choices they really have?