Monday, February 16, 2009

A FREE (IF BIASED) PRESS

I'm both grateful for a free press and disgusted by its denial of bias

SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE AND GUARD. A free and responsible press is one of the necessary legs of the stool that makes for stable, progressive life in America. As I see it, along with a democratically-elected, responsive government and an engaged citizenry, an independent free press is essential. America's history has been positively served by the free press at major turning points. Guarding our free press, ensuring its independence, and encouraging its purity is critical to the viability of the American experiment.

PLEASE ADMIT BIAS. At the same time, I recognize that no expression of the free press is without bias. No source or outlet is completely objective. Bias exists at every level. One of the most disgusting realities of the news media industry is its denial of bias. It's better for a news organization to simply state its bias--mild or strong, right or left, one way or another, etc.--than to promote itself as completely objective. The citizenry just isn't that gullible or stupid. But that may be exactly what some news organizations are betting on. It is therefore necessary and beneficial for watchdog groups like "Media Matters" to fact-check and reveal the biases of the news media.

READ CRITICALLY, NOT LEISURELY. I have learned to read, listen, and watch all news media with a critical eye. I take nothing at face value. Reading a newspaper is not a leisurely activity for me. It is an engagement in discernment. Watching a news program is not entertainment for me. It is a dialogue and debate involving an analysis of perception vs truth. I work to read between and behind the lines, often rejecting the leading of a story as it is written as I discern what is left unsaid. Nuance is an important factor in news reporting and analysis. I find some sources are more trustworthy with facts and fairness than others, though none are without bias (some are so notoriously biased, I simply reject them completely). What isn't being said is as important as what is being portrayed.

AN EMBEDDED PRESS. I remind myself that the press is as self-serving and fallen as any other organization with an unspoken bottom line. It can be intimidated by power and turn a relative blind eye to large aspects of the truth, as it is now clear that many news organizations did with the Bush Administration for much of the post-9/11 era. Major news organizations traded thoroughness for the prospect of continued access to information during the first three years of the war in Iraq. This breakdown was costly to Americans at numerous levels. I also wonder why more investigative resources were not directed to the finance industry over the past several years?

ONE REPORTER'S PURSUIT. Every now and then, however, the watchful, probing eye of the independent free press helps us immeasurably. I came of age during the Watergate scandal and have seen what dogged investigation and reporting can reveal of the truth. The work of a Washington Post reporter almost single-handedly brought truth to light that exposed the ugly corruption of a President of the United States. Exposed, President Richard M. Nixon resigned.

PLEASE, TELL THE POSITIVE TRUTH, TOO. But it is not just the ability--and responsibility--to identify and expose corruption that makes an independent free press valuable to us (independence and the threatened loss of this is worth another post entirely!). It is also the ability and responsibility to shed revealing light on what works in America--what is intrinsically good, what inspires, what humanizes, what connects us, what encourages community, what investments are being made, what problems ares being addressed, etc. Unfortunately, local news media has given themselves mostly to an "if it bleeds it leads" ethos. Civic journalism is in desperate need of renewal and refocus. I hope this is something I can encourage for years to come.

In the spirit of dialog, I welcome comments and/or questions. Click on "responses" below to post. They're moderated only to reduce incivility. Shalom!

Graphic found at Slate.com

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Your tasteful comments and/or questions are welcome. Posts are moderated only to reduce a few instances of incivility.