Who else will do it?
Freedom of the press was established in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even before the framers of the Constitution put it in writing, one of the major roles of the press in this nation was to operate as a check against government overreach and corruption.
The press, now more commonly called the news media, generally includes, but is not restricted to, photographers, journalists, television broadcasters and radio announcers. In essence, the news media’s role in regard to government is to keep tabs on it and inform the public of its activities. If not for the news media, government’s accountability to the voters would be greatly diminished.
Whether elected, appointed or hired, virtually all government officials claim to welcome scrutiny. In reality, when making this claim they’re usually referring to a form of scrutiny that requires only a superficial amount of investigation.
News media bias has always existed. In fact, it has always been rampant. In its most positive form it is practiced by reporters who openly admit their political leanings. But Americans learned long ago that many reporters operate in a biased fashion under the pretense of being unbiased.
At the national level, the press is so biased that there is no point in pretending otherwise. Polls show that a large majority of the public is well aware of this and, let's face it, most Americans also are aware of which portions of the national news media lean left and which portions lean right.
What of the news media that covers state and local government? Sure, the public readily recognizes biased reporting at these levels as well. However, it is the unbiased reporting of state and local government that has undergone the most change in recent years. Due to factors beyond the news media’s control, this news coverage is increasingly becoming sterile.
For decades there have been many so-called honest reporters who pursued stories about state and local government in an unbiased manner. That is to say, once they were on the track of a news story they'd investigate it thoroughly and, to the best of their ability, report the truth, regardless of their personal political leanings.
But now, this brand of reporter rarely has the resources or time to truly track stories, let alone fully investigate them.
It's no secret that traditional news media nationwide is coming apart at the seams. Access to news has become available from so many entities, particularly over the Internet, that advertising dollars are spread thin. As a result, revenue streams for independent newspapers and radio stations have been severely diluted.
This has had an effect on the national news media, but its impact is most pronounced at state and local levels. Much of the news media that covers state and local government only survives today as components of regional or statewide chains.
A great deal of the news content dispensed by these news media chains is generic. Stories and features are packaged and sent to the chains’ newspapers and radio stations in a manner reminiscent of burgers and pizzas from fast food franchises.
Today, if you happen to live in a community with a locally owned and operated newspaper, there's a good chance that you underestimate how lucky you are.
Because of the current dynamics within the news business, reporters deal with shrinking staffs, assignments handed down from far away offices, and having virtually no time to study political and governmental issues or do much, if any, real investigative reporting. As a result, stories about government and politics generally add up to little more than “this side says this” and “that side says that” stories.
It's not that reporters don't want to dig deeper, it's just that they're not given the means to do so. Fulfilling the role of the press to really keep tabs on state and local government is becoming increasing impossible under these conditions.
Most innovative and investigative news stories produced today come from alternative media — on both the left and the right. The alternative media that is digging up the dirt on government and politics makes government officials uncomfortable, and at times downright angry. They'd much prefer the superficial scrutiny of the threadbare “regular” media.
Faced with scrutiny from alternative media sources, government officials try to marginalize it. “Consider the source,” they protest, “you shouldn’t pay attention to anything they write or say.”
Casting aspirations about, or belittling the source of a story is a powerful weapon. It can, and often does, convince large segments of the public to dismiss some news accounts out-of hand. Yes, there are some alternative news media stories that deserve to be ignored. Increasingly, however, the alternative news media is proving that much of what it reports should be taken seriously.
Those who wish to be well-informed should keep in mind that (along with presenting its side of each issue) today’s alternative news media also is filling a void. It provides the scrutiny of government that the regular news media can no longer be counted on to provide.
Jack Spender is capitol affairs specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential, the online news source for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.