Steven Den Beste posts a thoughtful memo about the press and its public role. He makes a lot of sense but there are a couple of areas in which his comments might usefully be expanded.
His discussion of the “mission” of the press lists informing citizens “so they can vote wisely” as a goal. It is indeed a valid goal but it’s incomplete. A fuller definition might be based on the press’s traditional function as a check on government. The idea is, or used to be, that government is concentrated power and needs to be watched closely to keep it accountable. This is a more extensive charter than that of merely helping citizens to vote wisely.
Modern professional journalists often see their main role, quite differently and incompatibly from the traditional one, as being about encouraging that which they see as social reform with government as its principal agent. They tend to under emphasize the risks and costs of concentrations of governmental power, and to over emphasize threats posed by what they see as private concentrations of power (principally, corporate America, organized Christianity and grass-roots political conservatism).
This is where Steven’s comparison of journalists to defense lawyers breaks down. The defense attorney may be defending a reprehensible person, but the role of the defense attorney is extremely important to the integrity of our legal system. The same might also be said of journalists if they sought to expose abuses in all parts of our society. However, it is not true for journalists like Mike Wallace, whose zeal for aggressively revealing the secrets about some institutions (the U.S. military, corporations, the Catholic Church), and not others (regulatory agencies, lefty non profits, the UN), makes clear that their political agenda comes before investigating abuses of power.
Most Americans aren’t going to trust big-time journalism unless journalists drop their activist pretensions. Mainstream journalists could do valuable work, both for the society and their own careers, as government watchdogs, but until more of them become serious about doing it (i.e., willing to leave out the reformist bias) they will be overtaken increasingly by bloggers and other amateurs, especially on the local level. In the meantime, the mainstream press is devolving into a combination of conventional entertainment and political theater, all of it remote from the reality that most Americans know.
As for beating the point spread, Steven is right to note this example of selection bias in journalists, who tend to frame everything as a horse race where relative standings matter more than finishing times. Point-spread framing is sometimes appropriate for political news, but not to the exclusion of discussion about ideas and arguments. One of the ironies here is that while the mainstream press tends to use point-spread framing inappropriately for political news, they rarely use it for economic news, where it can be highly informative. We can watch the news and learn that Candidate X is polling 10% ahead of Candidate Y, but not hear crucial information about their respective positions that might help to explain what’s going on. Meanwhile, on the same news show, we are told that stocks rallied on the Government’s quarterly GNP report showing Z% growth, as if the absolute percentage, and not the spread between that number and the prior expectation, which is often more significant, were all that mattered.
I think that part of the problem with journalism is like that of public education. Institutions in both of these areas tend to recruit from pools of applicants who are certified by educational processes that a lot of able people wouldn’t put up with. So the ranks of conventional journalism and the public schools end up being populated disproportionately with people who are either second-rate or share the political or ideological agendas of the schools that trained them.