The Press Must Lead the Debate, Not Just Reflect it

As the role of the press continues to be hotly debated, one thing remains clear: it has never been just a passive observer.

During a recent segment of WNYC’s “On The Media,” Ethan Bronner, the New York Times’s deputy foreign editor, said this about why his paper is not yet using the phrase “civil war” to describe what is happening in Iraq:

You know, it is not that I’m here to say, under no circumstances, is this a civil war. The question is, do we want to use it as a term of art in our coverage day in and day out? I mean, there is a certain conservatism or a cautiousness inherent in writing news copy at The New York Times. We’re not eager to sort of lead the debate but to try to reflect it as best as possible.

In fairness, Bronner gave a detailed explanation of why Times editors don’t think the current situation in Iraq qualifies as a full-blown civil war, and our purpose here is not to pick that nit. Rather, we take issue with the suggestion that the Times, and the rest of the press, should not be eager to lead the debate — over Iraq or anything else of national import.

Again, in fairness, Bronner’s comment came at the end of a short interview with Brooke Gladstone, one in which there was no follow-up, and we acknowledge the likelihood that Bronner would have more to say on this topic. Still, his comment betrays a crucial and difficult issue for the mainstream American press.

The tension in journalism between a just-the-facts approach and something a bit more pointed is not new. But that tension has become ever more prominent as journalism has fragmented and become more openly partisan on the Web and cable TV, and as our political and corporate worlds have become ever more sophisticated at manipulating the press and even bypassing it altogether. Just-the-facts has never seemed so inadequate.

As the mainstream press struggles to hang onto its audience while adapting to a world where it often no longer has the last word in our national debates, it is worth remembering that American journalism has never been as much about just-the-facts as many would like to believe. A wise editor once said that when people read the front page of a newspaper they think they are getting everything they need to know about a given story, but what they are actually getting is whatever the reporter was able to piece together by deadline. Incomplete, and shaped by the reporter’s choices and those of her editor. Like every human endeavor, unavoidably imperfect.

It is important to remember this because part of mainstream journalism’s problem today is that it tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, there is an almost reflexive desire to hide behind the mantle of the objective, just-the-facts, observer of life’s rich pageant. On the other, we tend to bristle when it is suggested that we are not doing enough to set the agenda — or lead the debate. When the New York Times chooses to front a story about potentially illegal eavesdropping by our government — after choosing to hold it for a year — it is leading a national debate. The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times chose not to go with a story on congressman Mark Foley’s inappropriate behavior toward underage pages. ABC News chose differently. We now have a national debate about the actions (and inaction) of Foley and his GOP superiors in Congress.

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?

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.