behind the news

Opening Shot

In an election season, the press must sort fact from fiction and follow the money
November 23, 2010

The midterm election season produced stories that tested journalism’s ability to do what it must during political campaigns: sort fact from fiction and follow the money. The Tea Party confronted reporters with the messy reality of a grassroots movement; the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates on anonymous political attack ads; the immigration story and the fitful economic recovery were ripe for demagoguery and distortion.

Such stories challenged the role of fact-based information in the national conversation. How can we have an honest debate when a Senate candidate can claim that Sharia law has taken hold in American cities—and can remain a viable candidate? Or when politicians can assert that the stimulus did “nothing” to ease the recession? People who value intellectual honesty need to demand it—of their elected officials and their media. Some important steps in that direction are found in Steve Coll’s open letter to the FCC, in which he outlines an overhaul of America’s decrepit information infrastructure. And our editorial comes at the problem from another angle, urging journalism to stand up and help “rebuild the forum that makes democracy work.”

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.