Thursday, January 10, 2008

On the Duties of the Press

This article at Politico is quite a good summary of many of the criticisms the blogs have directed at the way the mainstream media covers politics. It defines three problem areas for political reporters: seeing election campaigns as horse races (or as theater performances), living in an echo chamber, and having personal biases influence the reporting. And oh boy but are those problem areas!

I have been shocked with journalistic attempts to manipulate the primaries so that they would make a more interesting race to report on. That is not one of the duties of the press, as far as I can see it. The proper duty here is to inform the voters about the relevant issues. The echo chamber is a big problem, especially because of this:

Check out the nicer restaurants in Manchester, N.H., or Des Moines, Iowa, in the political season and you will see the same group of journalists and pols dining together almost every night. We go to events together, make travel plans together and read each other's work compulsively. We go to the same websites — the Drudge Report, Real Clear Politics, Time's "The Page" — to see what each other is writing, and it's only human nature to respond to it.

Note the importance of the Drudge Report in that list. It is a conservative website and it's unclear to me where Drudge gets the items he reports on or how neutrally he selects the topics to cover. But mainstream journalists go there to find out what's going on.

The echo chamber has a different problem, too. If it gets something wrong, the echoes will perpetuate the error, and unless the whole thing blows up in the faces of the journalists we may all be left with false information and untruthful reporting. The duty of the press is to inform and to provide as truthful reporting as possible.

Finally, the personal bias. To quote from the article:

NBC's Brian Williams stirred some controversy earlier in the week when he reported that his network's correspondent covering Obama admitted it was hard to be objective covering the Illinois senator. Reporters are human, and some did seem swept up in the same emotions many voters experienced when they saw a black man win snow-white Iowa by preaching a gospel of change. Many are sympathetic to Obama's argument that the culture of Washington politics is fundamentally broken.

McCain also benefits from the personal sentiments of reporters. Many journalists are enamored with McCain because of the access he gives and, above all, the belief that he is free of political artifice.

Hillary Clinton, cautious and scripted, got the reverse treatment. She is carrying the burden of 16 years of contentious relations between the Clintons and the news media.

Many journalists rushed with unseemly haste to the narrative about the fall of the Clinton machine. On this score, reporters are recidivists. The Clintons were finished in 1992, when Bill Clinton's New Hampshire campaign was rocked by scandal. In 1993, when Time pronounced him "The Incredible Shrinking President." In 1994, when Hillary Clinton botched health care and Democrats lost Congress. In 1995, when Bill Clinton pleaded he still had "relevance." In 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal sent the Clinton presidency reeling.

Once again, the problem here is that if the reporting is based on personal bias it will not only inform or misinform the audience but may also change general perceptions about a politician in the direction of the reporter's own bias. Suppose the bias is based on something personal. The outcome then is to make a private friendship or hatred between a reporter and a politician into a real factor in the political game. That's stupid.