This article was published by the Spectator on Wed. I’m presenting it in the longer, uncut and yet first-round edited form on this website. If you would like to view the published version click on the link on the top-left section of the site, or click here.
Selling Out Democracy
Without good information one can simply not make good decisions—it is because of this principle that the founders of American democracy, and nearly all democracy advocates before and since, have relentlessly advocated the freedom of speech and press. Mostly, these advocates set out to protect the freedom of the press from government’s oppressive hand. Lately, however, we have encountered a different problem: major and central news outlets selling out, obscuring reality, and selectively reporting about events.
This phenomenon is most dangerous when it rears its head among the world’s leading news outlets. While journalistic integrity should be the guiding principle no matter a reporter’s station on the totem pole, one must admit that when the New York Times, CNN, and, for the Arab world, Al Jazeera overstep the boundaries as reporters by becoming involved with the subjects upon which they are meant to report, the entire edifice of public information comes into doubt.
“News organizations boast that they cover even the toughest beats without fear or favor. Sometimes it’s true. But sometimes journalists choose to censor themselves instead,” writes Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe on April 17, concluding that, “Whatever the excuse, the results are the same: The public is cheated, the news is corrupted, and a despot is strengthened.”
That is why the lack of reporting by the New York Times on Arafat’s active drive to undermine Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas through the creation of the Supreme Military Council under Arafat, usurping PM Abbas’ intended control of the Palestinian security forces, in more than unethical. It is also dangerous since decision makers in our democratic system–the people–are not given good information and are thereby unable to make good decisions. As the leading newspaper in the world, it is the yardstick upon which readers measure all other journalism. When the measuring tool loses its reliability, everything else comes into question.
The New York Times refuses to call the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the various other groups in the Palestinian areas “terrorists” for fear of loosing its sources, notes a foreign reporter I queried for this piece. CNN, still calling itself “the most trusted name in news,” has admitted to hiding reports of Saddam Hussein’s brutality in order to keep its bureau open in Baghdad and protect its employees there, by way of an op-ed written by the station’s chief news executive Eason Jordan in the New York Times on April 11. Al Jazeera, according to John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, has been found to be saturated with Saddam Hussein’s agents, with the network’s managing director, Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali, allegedly at the top of the payoff list. And yet the entire Arab world looks to it for credible, non-state controlled information, calling it “the CNN of the Arab world.”
As Hugh Hewitt asks in the Daily Standard, “Are there any similar non-disclosure deals at work in Cuba, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Burma, or any other country in which CNN maintains a presence?” How can we, who will probably never experience much of the world first-hand, judge a policy advocated by any member of out government if the information we receive is in doubt?
The democratic ideal of mass participation in politics rests upon the idea that the citizenry can make educated decisions about policies, and elect representatives responsible for carrying out the will of their constituencies. When the citizens are presented with a slanted or incomplete view of reality, they cannot be expected to make educated decisions. Moreover, as a handful of corporations gain the power to control an ever-increasing portion of the media–which was a problem even under the recently relaxed FCC regulations—a select few will gain a disproportionate amount of influence over our opinions.
While some such as the journalist Robert Wright claim that the dawn of the ‘ebay of ideas’—the decentralization of news due to the Internet—may provid a counterweight to the influence of the media corporations, the unfortunate fact is that news networks set the standards upon which other news outlets are judged. Think of it this way: when asked to verify a fact, most people would trust The New York Times over Salon.com any day of the week. On the same note, weblogs, while revolutionary in their ability to generate original analysis and open peoples eyes to inconsistencies in reporting, are still no more than third-hand sources, quoting other news sources to make their points.
So, in recognizing that the traditional media remains important even after the information revolution, there is now a vacuum of credibility, a lack of good information on which democratically empowered citizens can base their perceptions and choose their candidates. This vacuum is degrading our democracy, reducing our ability as citizens to influence our government.
To protect democracy, we will need to figure out how to restore credibility to a free press that will serve all citizens and not solely corporate interests. We need to set standards in order to know that the press is reporting the whole picture, is doing its best to find the truth in events, and is not mixing opinion with reporting. Until we solve these problems, our democratic values are endangered, and our ability to truly influence government is compromised.