The Press is Good, But Not Good Enough

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Saturday, January 28, 2006
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; the relation of money and lobbying to policy-making on Capitol Hill; the rationale for and the conduct of the war in Iraq — have been getting a thorough workout in the media over the past year. 

In fact, several of the key stories you see on the front pages or on the nightly news got their start because of enterprising reporting. The lobbying scandal linked to Jack Abramoff, for example, began unraveling after a newspaper story two years ago detailed the exorbitant fees paid him by Indian tribes. The decision by the Bush administration to permit spying on Americans by the National Security Agency was uncovered by the press, as were revelations of the various abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. 

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 people to hold those in power accountable. It disseminates information, educates our citizenry and allows them to make more informed and discerning judgments. 

In short, it makes it possible for Americans to understand and perform their roles in a representative democracy, not only making it more likely that they can get the system to work for them, but also giving them the knowledge they need to be engaged and active in the political system. 

So it is disturbing that, 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. And too much of the press today has an uncritical fascination with celebrity and power. 

In the interest of "balance," the press corps allows itself to be used by our capital's hyper-developed spin industry, instead of using its own judgment and knowledge and telling readers or viewers what is actually happening. I prefer a press that expresses its opinion to one that maintains a spurious balance or yields to the tyranny of "evenhandedness," making two sides of an issue appear even, when in fact they are not. 

It is equally frustrating to see a press that is reluctant or even unwilling to report disturbing truths that Americans need to hear: stories of innocent Iraqis killed by American action, for instance, or the challenges faced by the poor and working class in this country. 

Some stories — steroids in baseball, say — get a disproportionate amount of coverage, while less glamorous but often more important stories go mostly uncovered. Investigative reporting is going out of style, and 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. When was the last time you saw extended coverage of how regulatory decisions have affected you? Or of the ins and outs of U.S. agricultural policy? 

The close ties between the "K Street" lobbying community and some members of Congress have gotten ink lately, but they have been a central feature of life on Capitol Hill for many years, and deserved much more coverage much sooner. Even the federal budget gets little play, even though it is arguably the single most important story to come out of Washington for the average American. 

Perhaps the Washington press corps is getting its legs under it now, as one good story leads to another on the inner workings of Capitol Hill, the lobbying community or the administration. The American public may prefer entertainment and sports, but that is not a reason for the press to shirk its responsibility to help our society stay free and ensure that our citizens can gauge whether our system of government is working. 

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.)