August 16, 2009

American Media Failed Us Before Iran and Iraq

George W. Bush speaks at a campaign rally in 2004.Image via Wikipedia
A big story over the past couple of years has been the impending demise of the U.S. newspaper industry. In our current recession, we have seen many big newspapers close their doors and many of the most prominent require bailouts of one sort or another. Some observers have argued that this is due primarily to ineffective business models (e.g., the failure to embrace an online subscription model, etc.). Others see it as a struggle between new media and traditional media where the traditional media is losing. There is little question that these factors are partially responsible, but I think that there is an even more important one that has received far less attention than it deserves.

Undoubtedly, new media (i.e., blogs, social networks, Twitter, etc.) do some things better than newspapers ever will be able to do. The utility of Twitter in post-election Iran was a recent example, but there will be many others. At the same time, most of us would agree that traditional media is light years ahead when it comes to investigative reporting.

I have always thought of the media, traditional or otherwise, as having a crucial role in the American democracy as providing another check and balance on government. Indeed, we often refer to the media as a "fourth estate" in recognition of this important function.

Sadly, I believe that it is the traditional media's abrogation of this critical investigative role which heralded its demise. We tend to think of the lead up to Bush's unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the moment when the American media failed us. To be sure, this was a failure; however, it was neither the first nor the most important. In fact, based on the startling absence of investigative reporting by American newspapers following the 2000 presidential election, we should have seen it coming.

As disappointing as it was to see the mainstream media uncritically accept Bush administration propaganda in 2002, I believe that the media's refusal to investigate compelling evidence of election fraud during the 2000 presidential election was even worse. This should have been a huge story that exposed serious problems with the American democracy and uncovered the culpability of both political parties. Instead, it was buried.

I consider this to be a watershed moment because it signaled that the media was no longer willing to perform its essential investigative role. With increasing corporate ownership and one merger after another, it had become clear that investigative reporting which might harm certain corporate/media interests was not going to happen. Sadly, this included exposing serious election fraud and taking down a corrupt administration. More recently, it involved making sure that the least threatening candidates would get elected.

Where does this leave us today? It leaves me feeling sad and discouraged but mostly just mad. I believe that we need traditional media, including newspapers, mostly because of the investigative role they used to perform. But as it becomes increasingly clear that they are not going to exercise this function in a manner that might harm their business interests, I have a more difficult time justifying their continued existence. By choosing to provide soft entertainment instead of hard news, the media has betrayed our democracy.