Why We Should Care About The Media

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Saturday, December 13, 2003
Often during my years in Congress, people back home would ask me how they could best keep an eye on dealings in Washington. Read the newspaper or watch the news, I told them. Better yet, spend some time each week with several newspapers, magazines and news programs. 

I suppose I’d still give that advice today, but with some reservations. Journalists play a central role in the success of our system of government, yet I fear many do not fully appreciate their crucial responsibility in a representative democracy. 

There was a reason the Founders thought a free press important enough to focus on it in the first amendment. Thomas Jefferson famously summed it up in 1787, when he wrote in a letter, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." 

I consider journalists valuable and necessary allies in the pursuit of good government. A well-informed public with the ability to distinguish sincerity from cant and truth from deception is essential in a democracy. One illustration of this is that Members of Congress simply cannot do effective oversight of the many programs and activities of the federal government unless they have information independent of government itself. Our system cannot function well without journalists who probe deeply into the workings of our society and government, and explain and expose them to both a general audience and policymakers. 

Granted, the journalist’s job is not easy. The best are curious, skeptical, probing, persistent, and devoted to accuracy– preferring to be right over being first. They don’t let those in power seduce them or manage their reporting. They rush to correct misperceptions about public policy, and don’t let glib statements go unchallenged. They know how to present complicated issues in a manner all of us can understand, and recognize the importance of consensus-building, mediation and negotiation. Perhaps most important, they treasure their independence and the crucial role they play in a democracy. 

One of the small ironies about Washington journalists in recent years is that many who seem to understand this best aren’t necessarily American, they’re British. Anyone who’s sat for an interview with Washington correspondents from England can’t help but be impressed by how well prepared, well informed, probing, and altogether tough they are. 

Why should this be? I can’t speak to the strengths of the British press, but I have some thoughts about what’s taking place in the U.S. To begin with, some members of the press corps are more advocates than journalists, preferring to shape public policy rather than carefully report it. Some news organizations as a whole have taken on the role of cheerleader for a given ideology or set of policies. It’s the right of these organizations to do what they want with their money, talent and resources, but they’re not gathering and presenting news in a way that fulfills their crucial role in a free and open democratic society. I want journalists who tell me what happened and why, with as little spin as possible, and then let me make up my own mind. 

I’m also concerned about the degree to which entertainment values have crept onto news pages and shows. I’d be the last to say there’s no place for this– coverage of public policy and politics need not be boring. But in searching for readers and viewers, some news organizations have jettisoned broader responsibilities. They underestimate the intelligence of the American people when they belabor the trivial and highlight those who shout the loudest, instead of reporting on the substance of complex issues. Important stories go uncovered or insufficiently covered, tough questions of our leaders go unasked, and people do not get the information they need to make discriminating judgments. 

Still, I take some solace from the fact that we’ve been here before. In 1807, 20 years after he penned his more celebrated words about the press, Thomas Jefferson was no longer as charmed by the enthusiastically partisan and critical newspapers of the day. Indeed, he argued in a letter to a friend, they were filled with lies. “The man who never looks into a newspaper,” he grumbled, “is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.” We’re not in such dire straits yet, thank goodness. But warning signs abound. 

(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.)