Journalism, Politics, and Scrutiny

In the time before cable TV and cable TV channels, when American TV channels only existed if the FCC allowed them a license, there was an FCC requirement that TV stations provide a public service, and one of the ways they could do that was by broadcasting the news. Radio stations had a similar mandate. Newspapers didn’t quite have the same mandate, but if they wanted privileges as members of “the press,” they had to behave as journalists, not publicists, opinion-makers, or paparazzi. All of these branches of media had a nominal responsible to be neutral in what they reported. They were not to be government lackeys; they had specific protections built into the Constitution to let them challenge the government without fear of direct retribution. Freedom of the press was distinct from freedom of speech; they were not two ways of saying the same thing.

Cable TV softened that some. There became as many TV channels as there are radio channels, and more and more channels had narrow appeals, just radio stations in a moderately large market serve a wide variety of niches. Are TV channels about college sports serving some public good neutrally? Not really — but since they barely rely upon the FCC for any sort of approval, they don’t care. Home shopping channels certainly aren’t a public utility; they’re money changers, not at the temple, but in the forum. As cable TV channels became more varied and more outspoken, so, too, did the broadcast networks, all of which at some level also dipped their toes into cable TV ventures. It’s not like there’s an impenetrable wall NBC News and either CNBC or MSNBC. Reporters drift back and forth, some some events that were once covered by broadcast networks because there wasn’t anyone else to broadcast them are now relegated to cable channels. People know how to find them if they care to watch, and the broadcast networks can mostly stick to programming with the broadest commercial appeal. This softening of the edges of journalism seems to have confused some politicians, especially the “I’m an outsider” class of politicians.

I’ve already stated that journalists are not subservient to the government. Neither are they subservient to politicians who wish to enter the government or improve their positions in the government. Nothing says politicians have to sit for interviews with journalists, but neither are journalists restricted to talking only what politicians want discussed. If some journalist wishes to examine some of the claims of Ben Carson’s autobiography or the math of any of the proposed tax plans, they have every right to; there’s no copyright on political speech (or the past writings of current politicians) that protects the ideas from being judged and evaluated.

Suppose someone gave a debate among presidential candidates and no journalists came? Suppose there were not news cameras to record the debate; only the 1000 or 12,000 people in the auditorium in Colorado Springs or Las Vegas would hear the questions, see the body language, hear the responses, and hear the rebuttals. If that was their whole audience, the front-runners like Carson and Trump might not bother showing up. Some candidates are eager for any audience and any publicity, but some seem to think they’re in a strong enough position that the media need access to them more than they need the media. They make their disdain and contempt for “the media” part of their campaign message, part of their attempt to position themselves as rebels out to change the establishment, and part of their message is that the media is too powerful in perpetuating some status quo that doesn’t serve “most Americans.”

It’s been barely forty years since the American press participated in the effort to hold Richard M. Nixon accountable for the excesses of his re-election campaign and the efforts of his administration to intimidate its enemies. In that same era, reporters probed the excesses of the CIA and the conduct of the was in Vietnam until its pitiful conclusion. Today, some reporters are embedded with our military, supporting our troops as they report on the action around them, but some reporters will always challenge the premises of our wars and the official accounts of the wars. The American press didn’t cover up the abuses at Abu Ghraib; they held back long enough to verify that there was substance to the allegations and then joined the rest of the world press at holding the US military-intelligence complex’s feet to the fire.

Politicians who don’t like debates held by neutral news agencies or neutral community groups probably wouldn’t like press conferences with members of the press if somehow they should be elected. They might want to avoid too much scrutiny so far in front of the election, but no one in the press stipulated that they had to started campaigning — and debating — so far ahead of the elections. And if they want to spend two hours fielding marshmallow questions from fawning admirers, they can rent TV time for paid political ads, not try to get journalists to act like publicists.

Says me.

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