Democracy is a big institution. It’s also something of a hot topic these days, what with protesters in the Middle East clamoring for democratic reforms against the will of their dictators.
Democracy, like any political system, is never simple. And the recipe for a perfect representative government is still unknown. But one ingredient in any democracy is a free watchdog press. Or so we are told. Discussions of journalism’s role in the democratic experiment gloss over this point. This kind of talk gets bandied about quite a bit: ‘the free press is part of the bed rock of our republic.’ This is assumed; it is gratis. In democratic theory, journalism is the free bar peanuts.
But is that true? Are the roles of reporters, editors and publishers really so essential to a political system that, let us not forget, was invented before any of those were even jobs? That seems like a tall order for a group whose vocational training includes intense and repeated lessons on remembering to spell people’s names correctly. Perhaps this fluffery is media members primping their own feathers and over-emphasizing their own role in an institution for which we are all responsible.
In truth it is neither primping nor fluffery. History, that teacher who is by turns kind and cruel, instructs us that when the journalism is strong and critical, we succeed as a nation. When it is not, we are subject to the unchallenged machinations of scheming, power-seeking men and women.
Remember well the spectre of Watergate, where investigative journalism brought down a sitting president. Then contrast that apex with the drumbeat to war in Iraq, where the press uncritically echoed government vocal chords. Whatever you think about Iraq, it is an unpopular war, and American soldiers were never able to produce the much talked-about WMDs.
In this case, the cliche is apt: journalists are the surrogates of the public. Every citizen cannot be in the senator’s office, nor can they dig through his papers, looking for the inconsistency. There is too much else to do. But we can. Driven by psychology or something more respectable, we bring the powerful to account. We prop up freedom one headline at a time.