Ken Connor
The failing Fourth Estate
By Ken Connor
July 2, 2010

"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion." Thomas Jefferson

As if President Obama's summer couldn't get any worse, the White House was blindsided a few weeks back when news broke of a soon-to-be published Rolling Stone article in which General Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition operations in Afghanistan, and his staff openly criticize and otherwise deride the President and his administration. In a rare moment of unity, a majority of Washington's media and political punditry concluded that McChrystal's embarrassing lack of discretion was a fireable offense. Not surprisingly, the President agreed with them, and McChrystal's "resignation" was soon forthcoming.

Aside from the shock of learning that the President's top man in Afghanistan had so grossly violated protocol, equally surprising was the fact that it was freelance reporter Michael Hastings and Rolling Stone, not the Times or the Post or Katie Couric or Larry King, that had scooped the story. Somehow, the veterans of Washington's media establishment were caught flat-footed on what may turn out to be the biggest political story of the year. How did this happen? Columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times mused:

"There were few laughs in the 36 hours of tumult, but Jon Stewart captured them with a montage of cable-news talking heads expressing repeated shock that an interloper from a rock 'n' roll magazine could gain access to the war command and induce it to speak with self-immolating candor. Politico theorized that Hastings had pulled off his impertinent coup because he was a freelance journalist rather than a beat reporter, and so could risk 'burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal's remarks.'

[I]n any event, Politico had the big picture right. It's the Hastings-esque outsiders with no fear of burning bridges who have often uncovered the epochal stories missed by those with high-level access. Woodward and Bernstein were young local reporters, nowhere near the White House beat, when they cracked Watergate. Seymour Hersh was a freelancer when he broke My Lai. It was uncelebrated reporters in Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, not journalistic stars courted by Scooter and Wolfowitz, who mined low-level agency hands to challenge the 'slam-dunk' W.M.D. intelligence in the run-up to Iraq. Symbolically enough, Hastings was reporting his McChrystal story abroad just as Beltway media heavies and their most bold-faced subjects were dressing up for the annual White House correspondents' dinner."

Rich's observation begs the question: If the "media heavies" in Washington are filtering information through a sieve of self-interest, then how much trust should the American people place in the hallowed Fourth Estate?

The fact that there exists a transactional, quid pro quo relationship between Washington's newsmakers and the media cohort that covers them is hardly surprising, but that doesn't mean it's not a cause for concern. Journalism, by definition, is a profession founded upon a dedication to the pursuit of truth on behalf of the public. In the words of journalist Walter Williams, founder of the Missouri School of Journalism and author of "The Journalist's Creed," the public journal is a public trust, and suppression of the news is indefensible. As with virtually every other institution in Washington, however, it appears that the men and women responsible for delivering the news to the American people have compromised the public trust in exchange for personal advantage.

What price do the American people pay for the symbiotic relationship between the media and Washington? Quite simply, we can't trust that the primary sources of information used to form our political opinions are accurate, objective, or complete. Compromised news is no news at all. This is problematic, particularly because Americans' most cherished civil liberty — the franchise — is often heavily influenced by the media's portrayal of the candidates and the issues.

The American people must, therefore, adopt a high index of suspicion of the news we read and watch, and take pains to get "the whole story" before we draw any conclusions. This is especially challenging in an age where there is a 24-hour cable news channel for each political party and a blog for every ideological persuasion. As tempting as it may be to insulate oneself inside an echo chamber of our own preconceived notions and opinions, it is irresponsible and dishonest — a disservice to a nation that was founded upon the ideal of an informed and enlightened electorate.

Aristotle said that man is, by nature, a political animal. Recognizing this truth, it is unrealistic to expect perfect objectivity from anyone, let alone the men and women of the press. But this fact does not exonerate them from their professional responsibilities, and the people — as consumers of the news — have a right to expect better. In the meantime, it might be a good idea for all of us to take a little more time to check our own biases at the door when evaluating "the news." As Michael Hastings recently showed us, there's often more to the story than we realize.

© Ken Connor


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