In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as the press faced criticism for failing to use the catastrophe to initiate a national conversation about race (or class, or infrastructure, etc.), Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN/U.S., defended his network’s coverage to Eric Deggans, the press critic at the St. Petersburg Times: “We go in looking for stories,” he said, “not issues which need to be raised.” It reminded me of something Steven Weisman, a former New York Times correspondent, said to me in 2003 as we discussed whether American journalism’s awkward embrace of objectivity had helped stifle a robust discussion in the run-up to the war in Iraq about what might happen in the aftermath of that war: “Journalists,” Weisman said, “are never going to fill the vacuum left by a weak political opposition.” In other words, if the Democrats weren’t going to challenge the White House on the complicated issue of the war’s aftermath, neither was the press.

The idea at the heart of both of these statements—that journalists are little more than bloodless keepers of the record—which has served and protected but also severely hamstrung the press in this country over the last hundred or so years, increasingly feels like a cop-out. And as the so-called legacy media—the mass, mainstream media—struggle to survive and remain relevant as their business model fails and their competitors multiply, it is a cop-out that could have dire consequences for the future of public-service journalism.

The rhetoric of American journalism describes an adversarial fourth estate, a redoubt for professional skeptics who scrutinize authority in the name of the public and help keep the public discourse honest. As long as our newspapers enjoyed quasi-monopolies and the evening newscasts were a national touchstone, the moth-eaten reality of this self-image was easily ignored. But the hard truth is that the press mostly amplifies the agendas of others—the prominent and the powerful—and tends to aggressively assume its adversarial role only when someone or something—a president, a CEO, an institution—is wounded and vulnerable. (Even some of the most important journalistic work of recent years—the exposures of warrant-less wiretaps and CIA ghost prisons—came after the Bush White House had begun its precipitous slide in the polls.)

Such straightforward record keeping is still, of course, a legitimate part of the press’s role—tell us what our leaders say; tell us what happened today. But it is the easiest role for the press to fill (even easier now that technology has made everyone a potential keeper of the record), and one that is aggressively catered to by a public-relations apparatus that permeates every public and private institution, emitting an endless stream of incremental developments and story frames and pegs that keep deadline-driven reporters busy, busy, busy. This equation leaves far too little room for the press’s other, more important, roles: investigator, explainer, and, I would add, arbiter of our national conversation—the roles, in other words, that will not be filled in any comprehensive way by the swelling ranks of amateur or part-time journalists.

For evidence of how this kind of reactive coverage can lead the press (and the nation) astray, consider the coverage of the economy—not over the last year, which has seen some important work in a time of crisis, but reaching back to the 1990s, when investment regulation was quietly dismantled (Glass-Steagall), NAFTA was enshrined without a thorough public airing of probable consequences, the World Trade Organization protests were treated as street theater, and first the Internet wizards and then Wall Street’s titans were elevated to the altar of infallibility.

Yes, there were exceptions. There always are. The debate that simmers still over whether the press properly raised the alarm about subprime mortgages, derivatives, and the rest is largely built around those exceptions.

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.