If you were to ask the average American if the mass media have a responsibility to the voting public, you would likely hear an affirmative answer from most. Just what that responsibility is, however, and how we should interpret it, is quite unclear.
Last Night’s Democratic debates were conducted, as they usually are, as a series of questions from the news media, from minds and pens that are somewhere behind the cameras, deciding which questions should be asked. The “town hall” concept is clearly an exception to the standard practice. Of course, someone has to moderate the discussion — and the media can serve to interpret the market of ideas and interests that stir the electorate. Do they?
Should they? Can they? The media open themselves to criticism when they do so. Certain elements have long been accused of liberal bias in their reporting decisions, especially in its choice of topics. Fox News has emerged as “fair and balanced,” though many of its commentators, if not producers, would and do readily admit to their political opinions.
This week we’ve seen the controversy over the New York Times’ story regarding John McCain. To be sure, there are questions about sourcing and fact that need to be resolved before this story carris any weight, which it may never. Indeed, I would call it poor reporting on the part of the New York Times if this is all there is to it. There is certainly no excuse or easy forgiveness for ignorance of fact. The real question here is one of motive; what brought about the decision to run such a speculative story? The interesting thing, though we’ve seen similar situations before, is that there seems to be an element of surprise that the NY Times would, out of the blue, take such a swipe at a political candidate. Now we have an argument over the editors’ political motives.
Would it be such a bad thing to admit that some news outlets have certain political affiliations? We know it to be true. Do we really have to make such an issue out of neutral point-of-view and phraseology? In some parts of the world (Europe), newspapers are quite open in their political opinions, causing readers to expect their editorial and coverage decisions.
It seems that we have a cat-and-mouse game between different forces, calling one another on their “bias.” What we certainly have is a deviation of expectations. The public’s understanding of the roles and responsibilities of “the media,” whatever form they may take, is always in flux.