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Our Right to Know, and Debate: The Media's Role in a Democratic Society

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"Inch-by-inch, just a teensy-weensy bit, we lower our standards," to paraphrase Albert Brooks' character, Aaron Altman, in the 1987 film classic, Broadcast News---referring to the sorry state of corporate media. He might as well have been referring to democracy itself.

Democracy's health and effectiveness depend on every citizen's ready access to facts and truth---and to a thoughtful dialog regarding them. If we have to dig for these things---even if they are available, democracy is jeopardized: Most citizens have neither the time nor the initiative to take the trouble. And those in power know this.

Since we personally do not have ready access to national leaders or pertinent information, a reporter is essentially our surrogate. That's why a vital press is so important in a democracy.

A reporter is asking questions that we would, or should, ask if we had the opportunity. And an outstanding reporter asks questions we wouldn't have even considered.

Not only is the quality of the question important, the ability to follow up is essential: This is where truth is most likely to be revealed.

Twenty-five years ago it was customary for reporters to follow up questions at presidential press conferences. Now these events are tightly controlled by media handlers. Their mission is to make the speaker look good, not reveal the truth. As a result, follow-ups have gone the way of the dinosaur.

Major responsibility for our ignorance rests with the commercial news media: It tolerates and even promotes this sorry state of affairs. And as it has insidiously lowered its standards, we have lowered our expectations. The media has become essentially a conduit for propaganda and misinformation.

Democracy demands a public dialog, not a monolog. It's the media's job to challenge political leaders and ideologies---to honestly probe for truth, to hold our representatives accountable---not simply pass along "the message."

A major argument for commercial broadcasting is that it promotes freedom and diversity. In fact, the opposite has been the case. A handful of players, superconglomerates, controls all major media markets. In essence, there's no competition. We are left with little diversity and one ideology: profit---"McNetworks" and "McNews."

As for quality and depth of programming, clearly "free market" commercialism has failed. Turn on the TV or the radio and one finds homogenous mediocrity. We are left with a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

News-for-profit and a "free press" are inimical. The profit motive is intrinsically a self-censoring and self-editing process---coercion and government censorship are unnecessary. The status quo and establishment views are guaranteed protection; that's where the profit lies. Rock the boat and you lose the golden egg.

Media commentator Robert McChesney has observed: "What constitutes good journalism is bad business. It's that simple. Good journalism costs money. Good journalism is going to antagonize powerful people."

Good business means having fewer journalists, covering car chases and celebrity trivia rather than "digging into toxic dumps in working-class neighborhoods." Of course, the "unprofitable" stories are where democracy is most likely to be realized.

McChesney points out that daily newspapers used to try to reach 90, 95, 100% of the population. Now good business means writing off the bottom 30-50%. Advertisers want to reach upper-middle and upper income readers. That's where the money is.

Until the ascendance of Milton Friedman's "free market" mythology during the Reagan presidency, the "fairness doctrine" was a condition of broadcast licensing. Opposing candidates and positions were given airtime for balance---in the interest of fair and accessible public dialog. Candidates and causes didn't have to buy airtime, paid advertising, in order to get their message to the public.

Now, money, and only money, brings access to the public arena. That's plutocracy, not democracy. If democracy is to survive, or in fact be realized, our media system needs a radical transformation and restructuring.

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Donald Archer is a painter, observer, and commentator living on California's Central Coast. His work may be seen at www.DonaldArcher.com.
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