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Archive for Sunday, December 9, 2001

News media’s role vital to democracy

December 9, 2001

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It was, as everyone knows, Bob Hope who griped that he didn't "get no respect."

Who among us doesn't have fond memories of Bob tugging his tie and bugging his eyes as he delivered this signature line when he hosted "The Tonight Show" back in the '60s? It was always good for a laugh. One time, Bob's bandleader, Quincy Jones, nearly fell off his stool.

I invoke that famous lament because it sums up my response to a new survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It turns out that nearly half of all Americans believe are you ready for this? that news media routinely get the facts wrong.

Walter Cronkite would be appalled to know his profession was held in such low esteem. If he were still alive, that is.

But it gets worse. According to the same study, a similar percentage of Americans considers news media to be politically biased. Which, if you ask me, sounds like more sour grapes from those whiners in the vast right-wing conspiracy. But what else can you expect from people like them? Did you know that right-wing women bite the heads off their partners after mating? And Patrick Buchanan is the Antichrist. The pope said so. You can look it up.

It is, I must confess, mildly discouraging to be part of a group meaning media that's only marginally more popular than al-Qaida. If I had known this coming out of college, I don't know if I would have chosen to commit journalism. I might have opted for a more respectable profession. Like crack dealer, maybe. I mean, what's next? Lawyers telling reporter jokes?

For all that, though, there was one aspect of the Pew poll that was particularly troubling. It seems the survey also indicates a strong public appetite for censorship of the news. For example, half of the 1,500 respondents believe government should be able to regulate what reporters report in time of war. Forty percent disagreed, the remaining 10 percent were undecided. There is, of course, a word for countries where government controls media. That word is "dictatorship."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying news media should disseminate information that threatens national security. And responsible media do not. It was for precisely this reason that TV news outlets voluntarily curtailed the broadcast of Osama bin Laden's post-Sept. 11 propaganda videos. But there's a vast difference between media making responsible decisions and media having those decisions dictated by government.

Yet that's something half of the country would apparently like to see. It's a number that bespeaks a certain astonishing naivete. Does anyone really trust that government, if given the power to censor, would do so solely on the basis of national security?

If so, I have two words for you: Pentagon Papers. As in the secret history of the Vietnam War, the publication of which the Nixon administration tried to stop on the grounds that it threatened national security. Turned out the only security threatened was Nixon's, given a document that revealed a web of government lies and incompetence. The nation knows about those lies and that incompetence only because we read about it in the paper or saw it on the evening news. Only because somebody committed journalism.

I don't mean to cheerlead. Media are not perfect. Nor are all the charges the public levels against the press without merit.

Bias? It probably wouldn't be hard to find evidence that the media slight certain political beliefs. Also, certain races, religions, professions, sexual orientations, the entire female gender and a continent or two.

Inaccuracies? Well, I just found out that it wasn't Bob Hope who said, "I don't get no respect." Apparently it was the late Billy Crystal. How embarrassing.

Still, I persist in believing against all odds, evidence and common sense that an aggressive, skeptical and even adversarial press is the country's best defense against the excesses of its government. And that the need for such defense is, if anything, heightened in times of war and other crises.

A great American once wrote that, if given the choice between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, "I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."

Thomas Jefferson said that. No, really, he did.




Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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