Rebuilding a Healthy, Independent Press

Published September 11, 2008 in the Seattle Times

Public trust in the news media was shaken by the failure of the press to challenge the deceptive claims by the Bush Administration during the run-up to the Iraq War.

This being an election year, political campaign organizations and interest groups will do their utmost to manipulate public opinion. Will the press fulfill its watchdog role and guide voters to the right choices?

On the other hand, is it reasonable to expect the news media to play the role of Grand Inquisitor after the Truth?

People expect an awful lot from the news media. They expect the media to oversee the workings of society, to distinguish truth from propaganda, and to orchestrate appropriate outrage over real or perceived wrongdoing not just about the war, but also about abortion, homelessness, climate change, or whatever else people care most about.

By deciding what is propaganda and what is fact, and by choosing what is and isn't newsworthy, the news media help shape public opinion. In this sense, the news media wield tremendous power.

But in other ways, the news media are quite powerless. Investors demand a high return on investment, but competition from the Internet is fierce. Yet the public is often more interested in sports, entertainment, and sound bites than in boring news.

Presumably, the health care industry has a higher return on investment than the news industry.

Moreover, government secrecy, harassment, and manipulation limit reporters' access to the facts, while consolidation threatens diversity of viewpoints.

It's not hard to see why most media outlets were bamboozled about Iraq.

In time of war there is tremendous pressure to support the President. Knowing this, the Bush Administration exploited patriotism and fear of terrorism. They accused dissenters of being unpatriotic, or of not supporting the troops. Even Congress was misled by supposed "intelligence" from the Executive Branch. But reporters aren't allowed access to classified material, and the Bush administration pursued criminal charges against journalists too eager to uncover facts.

In short, news reporters have no crystal ball telling them what is true and just. Nor do they have the financial resources, legal standing, or courage to cover every story or point of view. (Some people would disagree with this analysis and accuse the "corporate" or "liberal" press of willful bias.)

What can be done? How can we empower and endow the news media so it can better play a watchdog role in society and better present alternative points of view?

First, media outlets should face up to their uncertainty about what is true and just, as well as their inability to give complete coverage in print or on the air. Instead of dividing content into objective "news" and subjective "commentary", they should provide different grades of news. Newspapers should publish more user-generated content and more fringe stories, representing marginalized opinions; the stories can be brief, can contain links to online elaboration, and can be accompanied by warnings that their newsworthiness is uncertain.

Second, Congress needs to strengthen laws that protect whistle blowers and reporters from criminal charges for violation of secrecy laws. And the Executive Branch's ability to classify information must be curtailed.

Third, broadcast media should be required to have more informational and local content.

As for the problem of funding, one market-based solution is for news providers to charge for (full) access to their online content. Users could pay for subscriptions directly, or content providers can contract with Internet commerce sites or with ISPs, from whom users can buy news and information channels.

This may seem regressive, but free news is like rent-controlled housing: its quality deteriorates.

An alternative funding solution involves taxpayer-funding. I'd be willing to pay higher taxes for independent, detailed news, just as I'd be willing to pay for voter-funded elections, government-run health care, well-funded police, and safe food and water.

But people are penny wise and pound foolish. They've bought into conservative propaganda about the supposed inevitable evils of Big Government and taxes. Yet left to the invisible hand of market forces, the press has failed at fulfilling its obligations to society.

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