A Citizen's View: The Responsibility of the Media in a Democratic Society

The media are a favorite "whipping boy" in presidential politics, with claims of bias coming from both the right and left. It is not hard to see why. The Washington Post online edition recently had six columns under its "Opinions" banner, all critical of Republicans. The FOX News website the same morning had a banner story about Secretary of Defense Ash Carter using a private email account -- and sub-headlines on Hillary Clinton's email troubles. Despite complaints about politically predictable reporting, however, there is nothing new here under the sun.

In George Washington's first term, the Gazette of the United States was a decidedly Federalist newspaper. A major contributor was Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who wrote under a pseudonym arguing for administration (mostly his own) policies. Not to be outdone, rival Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, put a writer on his departmental payroll and had him start an opposition newspaper, which Jefferson used to attack the very administration he was serving. Jefferson, extolled the newspaper as a bulwark against government tyranny, at least until he ran for president in 1800, when Federalist papers called him an atheist who would confiscate citizens' bibles if elected. By the closing year of his presidency, he would say that "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, in as much as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors."

Nor is it new that the media court their audience for financial gain. Partisan papers were as common in the revolutionary era as they are today - and just as concerned about advertising revenue. When Washington sought publication for his Farewell Address in the American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia's major newspaper, it appeared on page 2. The first page was devoted to advertisements.

But there are some things new under the sun. News spreads much more rapidly today, and media outlets reach a national audience easily. The media's power to shape the meaning of events - and to create them (e.g. presidential debates) - is greater. Presidential campaigning is also different. In the eighteenth century, it was considered unseemly for candidates to campaign. They stayed home, and surrogates spoke on their behalf. Demagoguery by candidates was harder, in an age when pandering to voter prejudices and baser instincts was also more politically incorrect.

The ability of the media to spark emotional contagion is also magnified in our electronic world. Jefferson proudly claimed that "we may tolerate error as long as reason is free to combat it." Given that it could take days for a newspaper to reach a city 100 miles away, time had a way to dampen viral emotions. Today, people see or hear and react instantaneously. Filters of reason lag behind the forces of anger.

The first amendment protects freedom of the press, but with freedom comes ethical responsibility. One obligation is a better balance of news and analysis. When the president visited the San Bernardino victims and their families, MSNBC carried a thirty-second report followed by five minutes of analysis by three commentators spanning the political spectrum. Analysis too often seems a way to fill air time, generating more heat than light, avoiding the rigor of serious reporting.

Another obligation is to balance getting the story out quickly with reporting accurately. Market share is a desirable goal but ought not to be the primary driver when errors in reporting spread faster than the corrections that come later. The "news" that the San Bernardino terrorist, Tashfeen Malik, posted jihadist threats on social media before she came to the United States went viral, spawning outrage over the government's failure to screen her posts before issuing a visa. The outrage continues, long after the FBI found that she never posted anything until the day of the shooting.

Still another ethical obligation is to educate, to get below the surface of events and political posturing. Too often content with a juicy headline or sound bite, the media fail to ask questions that test a candidate's thinking. When campaign coverage is dominated by what the latest polls say and who attacked whom, the media allow bombast to substitute for judgment among candidates and their followers. When they fail to ask how a promise can be implemented, at what cost, how Congressional support will be mustered, and what societal tradeoffs it requires, they are simply not doing their job.

The media also have an obligation to differentiate between fact and opinion among their reporters. The distinction between "analysis" and "news" has been blurred nearly to the point of extinction, allowing reporters to push corporate or personal politics into coverage while claiming to be objective. Opinions select their facts instead of facts leading to reasoned opinions. This slipshod approach to their task has led over half of Americans to report little or no trust and confidence in the mass media.

Americans will always get angry over politics. The media can be a balance wheel in the political process, a way to bring careful thought into political discourse. When it amplifies rather than corrects the dangers of ideology and reasoning, it stokes voters anger and irrationality. That may make for great headlines and increased revenue, but it contributes to the bad governance it so roundly criticizes.