No Mirror for the Media

I just read another article about how Bush failed the people of New Orleans. The gist of the article was how obvious such a calamity was to forsee and how the scope of the tragedy was preventable (at the hands of Bush and Bush alone – forget all of the other levels of government that have a more direct role, or all of the other previous administrations dating back a hundred years or so). As I read the article something came to me – where were all of that particular writer’s articles on the subject? Indeed, where where any of the media’s reports on this – before the hurricane hit, that is? If the scope of such a tragedy was so forseeable, and concrete action-steps to prevent it were within reach, where was the media outcry? Where were the editorials, analysis and articles?

Last I checked the media has a vital role to play in a democracy, so much so that freedom of the press is enshrined in the constitution. You see, in a representative democracy, people elect law makers to make decisions for us. In order for the public to make informed decisions about who to elect and what policies are best, we rely on the press to inform us. Armed with adequate information, Mary and Joe voter can go out and vote for the candidate that best represents their interests, and/or support a particular interest group that can directly lobby the government.

I agree with the general proposition that much of the loss of life regarding Katrina was preventable (for instance actually following an evacuation plan would have been a good start). But as far as I can tell there was no public outcry for, say, improving the levies, or ensuring that busses be assigned for evacuation before the hurricane hit. Was the public willfully blind to inevitable catastrophe or were they simply unaware of the consequences, unarmed with the appropriate information? It’s ironic that the media today is answering that question for us – they are telling us it should have been obvious.

For some time now the media has decided that its role is to pursuade, just as much as it is to inform. The way it’s supposed to work is the media gives us as much relevant information as possible and the voters take that information with them to the polls. Once the media starts to manipulate the “news” by omitting facts, not reporting stories, reporting stories based on preconcieved narratives, slanting headlines etc. all with an ideological slant (it’s widely agreed that there is a liberal bias in the mainstream media), not only do they abuse their constitutionally protected role in society, they create an innefficiency in the democratic process. In an attempt to perform an end run around the free will of the voting public based on all available information, the public is only given information that the media wants the public to learn about – “news” that is in accordance with the media’s world view.

Thus, for instance, we see only “bad news” stories out of Iraq and correspondingly a complete absence of information of positive democratic developments and improvement to Iraqi infrastructure and social development. Similarily, we are now seeing a “blame Bush” story line regarding the preventability and preparedness regarding Katrina, which will no doubt limit the public debate about changes going forward. But what about the media’s role prior to the hurricane? Was their failure to adequately report on what they themselves say were obvious oversights in preparedness a direct consequence of media bias, or a latent defect created by a culture of advocacy rather than one of news reporting?

One thing is certain – having long ago decided to become gatekeepers, rather than purveyors, of information, they have opened themselves up to the charge that they chose to keep such important information from the public.

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