What is odd in all this is that the two approaches — just-the-facts and leading the debate — are in no way mutually exclusive. The main reason the press is reluctant to fully embrace its role as a leader of debate is that for the last forty years there has been a highly effective — if intellectually dishonest — effort to tar journalism as the redoubt of the dreaded “liberal elite.” Anyone in the mainstream press who goes beyond stenography risks being accused (loudly and repeatedly) of bias. Look at the recent kerfuffle that erupted after Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times’s veteran Supreme Court reporter, spoke “from the heart,” as she put it, to a gathering at Harvard about what she sees as the U.S. government’s turning away from the rule of law and allowing public policy to be hijacked by religious fundamentalism. For nearly thirty years, Greenhouse has covered the court with distinction — and mostly without drawing the vitriol of the bias police. It is silly to think that Greenhouse has not developed a rich and nuanced understanding of many of the most contentious issues this nation has confronted in recent history, regardless of how she may feel personally about those issues.

More than ever we need the press to lead the debate. Lead it with investigative stories and analyses that are grounded in intellectually honest reporting. We need the press to trust in the authority its reporters and editors earn through just-the-facts reporting that leads to a deep, contextualized understanding of the issues. Not so long ago there was a national debate over the question of good news versus bad news in Iraq. The reporters on the ground were saying that the situation was even worse than their reporting can convey. Here at home, the White House was insisting that freedom was still on the march, and its trumpeters in the partisan media were railing against the “liberal” MSM and its alleged desire to see America fail in Iraq. Today, all but the most deluded know that the reporters on the ground were right. They are the true authorities on the situation in Iraq. Many have been there longer than the military personnel who rotate in and out. They have written about it more, thought about it more, and studied it more. Why shouldn’t they be leading the debate?

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.