Monday, July 26, 2010


The structure of our government is based on a system of checks and balances, wherein each of the three branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial) has some power and influence on what the other branches can and cannot do.  Often, the analogy is made to a three-legged stool which provides stability and is difficult to upend.  Yet, this is a false analogy.  While three legs are optimum for a stool, there needs to be an additional check on government.  This is because our three branches of government share an important trait – they are the ones in power.

Our Founding Fathers recognized the danger inherent in trusting those in power, and added an additional check – Freedom of the Press.  The American press has a long and noble history of providing critical examination of governmental actions, and calling out the powerful for their actions when that power is used inappropriately.

The history of the early 20th century was influenced by the Wall Street Journal’s exposé of the oil industry’s Teapot Dome scandal and journalist Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which documented abhorrent labor conditions in the meat packing industry.  More recently, the publication of the Pentagon  Papers in 1971 by the New York Times and Washington Post, showed that the administration was lying to the public in justifying continuing a war in a far away location.  The result was the ultimate check and balance: the resignation of a corrupt President.

While yellow journalism has been around as long as newspapers, up until recently there has always been an ethical standard in the mainstream media that provided people with confidence in the accuracy of the news.  But it seems that with the emergence of the corporatization of media resulting in an emphasis on profits over quality, these standards have been compromised if not ignored completely.

No doubt, there are lots of hard-working ethical investigative reporters out there who are serving their profession and their country.  But as the Shirley Sherrod incident has aptly demonstrated, the 24 hour news cycle has been usurped by the 24 minute news cycle.  Fox “News” has mastered this technique.  It picks up an item from an extremist blogger with no credibility, repeats it hundreds of times on the air, and eventually the “legitimate” media picks it up from Fox and provides these “stories” with a semblance of credibility.  If you don’t agree with this, just mention “Swift Boat” to John Kerry.

One would suspect that those news outlets which provide an accurate and timely counterpoint to government misadventures would rise to the top in some sort of Darwinian process of elimination.  Yet even the Gray Lady herself, one of the most reputable and ethical news outlets, has been stung by lapses of ethical judgment or just plain laziness.  The New York Times blew it, not only in the run up to the Iraq War and WMDs, but also with climategate and the adventures of Jayson Blair.  We know we can’t trust Fox “News” and Drudge, but if you can’t trust the Times, what’s left?

Many of today’s self-described journalists and bloggers (including this one) have no formal training in reporting, let alone journalistic ethics.  So today, it’s more up to the consumer of news rather than the producer of news to discern the veracity and relevance of what is being reported and what your government is really doing..   There are tools available like WikiLeaks with their recent publication of Afghanistan war material, Media Matters, and ProPublica.  But the onus is on the reader to do the research and separate the facts from the rumors and hidden agendas.  Just because you can hear all of the “news” in 24 seconds does not make you informed.  Caveat lector!  Let the reader beware!

Would we get the same result today?


  1. "More recently, the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 by the New York Times and Washington Post, showed that the administration was lying to the public in justifying continuing a war in a far away location. The result was the ultimate check and balance: the resignation of a corrupt President."

    Steve, come on, which administration are you referring to? The clear inference from what you wrote is the administration in charge in 1971, the one whose president resigned, namely the Nixon administration. But the Pentagon Papers only dealt with events up until 1967.

    A 1996 article in the New York Times said that the Pentagon Papers "demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance".

  2. Glen,

    Just like the fault in prolonging the Viet Nam war is shared by both parties, the same is true for the Afghanistan/Iraq war. The Republicans started it under false pretenses, but this is clearly Obama's war now.