A LAMENT FOR THE FOURTH BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT

Forty years ago, for a college journalism class, I wrote a paper entitled “Bias in the Newspaper and News Magazine” that was well-received by the professor at the time. In this pre-Internet era my research led me to the (surprising) conclusion that “it has not been established that objectivity is a real need” and that “it is the newspaper managements rather than the readers that have demanded it.” I also observed that “there is no evidence that [objectivity] serves the public interest” and that the desire for it “is largely due to our conditioning,” having been told that it is in our interest.

Today, I don’t subscribe to the notion that objectivity in news is a bad thing, but I will stand by the conclusion I reached that “it would be fine if objectivity were a reality … [but] we are faced with the hard fact that it does not exist, and that opinion is being fed to us under its name.” I went on to suggest advocacy journalism clearly labeled as such would be preferable.

I was taught that the media are “the fourth branch of government.” Their probing helped keep the three constitutionally prescribed branches in check. Good investigative reporting shines a light on the entrenched cockroaches, causing them to scurry in fear. Judging, however, by the media’s handling of the Benghazi affair, I’ve concluded that objectivity isn’t dead—it’s nonexistent.

The attack on our diplomatic mission in Libya came at a very inconvenient time for the campaigning first-term president. The reports from the White House were so astonishingly inconsistent one would have expected an always scandal-hungry media to be all over it. As it was, the only voices emanated from conservative cable channels and Internet sites. As the months passed and it was clear the administration was stone-walling, another opportunity for vigilant investigative reporting went by with hardly a peep out of the main-stream media.

I don’t know if the attack was mismanaged, but it is clear from the White House’s behavior that they think it was. This week’s announcement that three whistle-blowers are planning to come forward will probably catapult the story to the front pages; there comes a point when partisanship becomes so blatant that even the loyalists have to dust off their keyboards and get to work.

Advocacy journalism, often masquerading as objectivity, is nothing new. What’s changed is that it has become so intense it blinds our investigative journalists to bad behavior. They effectively become campaigners, useless as the fourth house in our system of “checks and balances.”

Without their help, in the midst of a slow sea-change of values, I fear this wondrous experiment of freedom in a world plagued by subjugation will list to port and sink beneath the waves.

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