May 22, 2015

Why Good Journalism Matters

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Photo: pranavbhatt in Flickr (CC License)

Editor’s Note: Embattled by criminals, corrupt politicians, and lawsuit-wielding oligarchs, it’s easy to think that investigative journalists have few friends in this world. But the truth is that we have wide support from those who believe in truth and accountability. Here’s one of those important voices — former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton, a veteran of 34 years in the House of Representatives. Hamilton served as chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. With a lifetime of public service, he is worth listening to on why watchdog journalism is integral to democracy and justice, and why we need to dig even deeper and push harder.


Lee Hamilton

I have been involved in politics and policy-making for over 50 years, and as you can imagine I hold strong feelings about reporters and the media. They’re not what you might think, however.

Far from considering journalists to be irritating pains in the neck — though I’ve known a few who qualified — I believe them to be indispensable to our democracy. Our system rests on citizens’ ability to make discriminating judgments about policies and politicians. Without the news, information and analysis that the media provides, this would be impossible.

We depend on journalists and the outlets they work for to be our surrogates in holding government accountable; they can serve as a formidable institutional check on the government’s abuse of power.

So I am uneasy about some of the directions I see journalism taking these days. I admire the role that the press has played throughout our history, and fervently hope that it can right itself to play such a role again.

Let me note at the outset that I can find exceptions to everything I’m about to say. There are journalists doing reporting that is clear-eyed, fearless, and grounded in an honest evaluation of the facts — I’m thinking, for instance, of some of the work in recent years on the NSA — and this work has moved the national debate forward.

But far too often, journalism falls short. Reporters often seem to take what politicians and their handlers say at face value, writing what they hear without ensuring that the facts bear it out. They look for winners and losers at the expense of nuance. They strive to give the appearance of even-handedness by creating a false balance between two sides that do not deserve equal weight. They elevate politics, polls and personality over substance and measured analysis.

Too often, on Fox or MSNBC or any of a plethora of broadcast, print and online outlets, they slant the news. They engage in pack journalism, reminding me of blackbirds on a telephone line — one comes and others follow. And they delight in spotlighting the screw-up, the mistake, or the gaffe, which might be entertaining to readers but sheds no light on the underlying issues that could make government better if addressed.

I also worry about the increasingly sophisticated efforts by the government and powerful interests to tell us only what they want us to know. Reporters want to be part of the media elite, and the White House in particular — under presidents of both parties — has become quite skillful at manipulating them. Reporters have to keep policy makers at arms length, and not be intimidated by them.

I believe that much contemporary journalism has come untethered from a set of traditional values that served the country well over many years:

• Journalism needs to be in the service of justice, asking questions, telling stories, and inspiring those in power and those who vote for them to do the right thing.

• It should be a check on power, ferreting out the stories that those who hold public office don’t want revealed, and reporting the truths that we, as Americans, have the right to hear.

• It must hold tight to accuracy, intellectual honesty, rigorous reporting, and fairness — values that ought never to go out of style.

• And journalists have a profound responsibility to serve as lie detectors. A couple of years ago, the notable investigative reporter Seymour Hersh gave a speech in London in which he said of the U.S. government in particular, “The Republic’s in trouble. We lie about everything. Lying has become the staple.” You don’t have to go to that extreme to agree that journalists have to be curious and skeptical, and not buy into the conventional wisdom of the establishment.

A robust, inquisitive congressional oversight process should be capable of revealing what is too often hidden, but it’s not. We need journalists to do it.

In the end, my concern is that skeptical reporting and deeply informed investigative journalism are fading. We need more of them, not less. I want to see journalists digging deep into the activities of government, politics, business, finance, education, welfare, culture, and sports. Our Republic depends on it.

This column was originally published in The Courier Journal and is re-printed here with permission of the author. 


Former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton is director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years, where his chairmanships included the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran. He is a member of the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council and the CIA External Advisory Board, and served as vice chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (known as the 9/11 Commission), which issued its report in 2004. 

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