Compliant news media have failed the American people

December 23, 2004|By Lois Melina

AS THE COUNTRY prepares for at least two years with the Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress, it is vitally important that the news media look at how they have failed the American people and contributed to a polarized nation.

Journalists have allowed political operatives to successfully control what is discussed and how it is discussed. TV programs that pit an extremist on the left against an extremist on the right have made it clear there is no room for moderate voices. Walter Cronkite used to be the most trusted journalist in America. Now Jon Stewart - a comedian with a "fake news" show - may be.

President Bush invaded Iraq on false pretenses, and many in the news media not only didn't question his assertions but served to legitimize them. The Patriot Act, which authorizes serious abridgments of civil liberties, was enacted and allowed to continue with hardly a whimper from the institutions that depend on the First Amendment for their existence. The story of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib all but died with no high-level official held responsible.

Pursuing these kinds of stories takes time, energy and sources. It is fueled by a healthy skepticism from reporters and courage on the part of editors. And it requires that government be sufficiently in awe of the power of the press so that it provide answers and access.

Instead, we have too many reporters who believe it is their job simply to quote what people tell them - who think being "investigative" is getting a conflicting quote.

When Richard Nixon was discovered to have had an "enemies list" made up of reporters who had written tough stories about his administration, those reporters knew they had been doing their job. More important, even Mr. Nixon - who really did have a mandate in 1972 - did not dare try to limit the press.

If this administration doesn't respect the power of the news media, the news media need to take a hard look at how they have failed to earn that respect.

One way the mainstream news media have given up their power is by allowing spin doctors to control what becomes a story and how that story is framed. Political operatives understand the news media better than reporters and consequently are able to control what news is covered and how.

It's fair to blame the Democratic Party's loss of the election on the Kerry campaign's failure to address the Swift boat ads. But it's also fair to ask the news media to be accountable for giving legs to a story that they knew was false. What we have seen is that smear tactics, if repeated often enough, gain legitimacy. And political operatives on all sides have learned how to frame lies in ways that manipulate the news media into covering them as though they have substance.

Moreover, cable TV news rarely contains insightful commentary from respected journalists or informed experts. Instead, we have radical opinions expressed by people who represent extreme points of view. Is it any wonder the country is more divided than ever?

Even the major networks are embracing the trend to partisan commentary. Too often during the presidential campaign, the networks yielded the opportunity to objectively examine convention speeches and presidential debates to people hand-picked by the campaigns to extend the talking points of the candidates.

Mr. Bush, at a news conference immediately after winning another term in office, put the country on notice that he had no intention of being a "uniter," promising only to reach out to those who share his goals.

He arrogantly claimed that he had earned political capital in the election that he intends to spend. And he told the White House press corps that now that he has a mandate, he intends to answer only one question from each reporter. Follow-up questions, if reporters find the president's first answer to be less than adequate, are a thing of the past.

I don't think he was joking. I believe the president was saying he intends to do what he wants to do and was daring the news media to challenge him.

That is exactly what the news media must do.

Lois Melina, a former newspaper reporter and journalism teacher, is an author.

Columnist Clarence Page is on vacation.

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