‘The Jeffersonian Sense’ of Journalistic Responsibility

Describing an age-old political stategy–“John McCain….and Sarah Palin are going to try their best to make us talk about anything but the big issues facing our country”–the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson asks a question (10/5/08) as obvious to the electorate as it is rare in corporate news: “Are we in the media going to aid and abet the McCain campaign’s obvious ploy?” Robinson makes a plea for the responsible answer:

We journalists like to think we’re too smart to be used by one side or the other in a political campaign…. We believe in an omniscient free marketplace of news in which myriad individual decisions by reporters, editors, photographers, columnists, commentators and media barons–decisions about what to cover and how to cover it–somehow miraculously end up maximizing the truth. We claim not to be ideological, but this is our ideology.

At the same time, though, we think of ourselves as working in the public interest. We repeatedly remind everyone that our right to do our jobs however we see fit is enshrined in the First Amendment. We love to quote Thomas Jefferson about how he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers.

Fully aware that reporters’ “instinct is to cover what the candidates say,” Robinson nonetheless insists that “in the Jeffersonian sense, we know that it’s not in the public interest to spend the rest of the campaign talking about fringe characters who once crossed paths with Obama, McCain, Palin or Joe Biden instead of… big issues that will define the next presidency.”

Read the FAIR study in our magazine Extra!: TVâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s Low-Cal Campaign Coverage: How 385 Stories Can Tell You Next to Nothing About Whom to Vote For (5â┚¬“6/08) by Jon Whiten