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Good news!

Americans still believe the central role of a free press in a free society is to serve as a watchdog on government.

Bad news: I’m not sure the people who work in the press understand their mission.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a wide-ranging survey on press issues this month and found Americans remain largely supportive of the media’s role as a political watchdog. Most people – 54 percent – say that by criticizing political leaders, news organizations most often prevent them from doing wrong. Just 29 percent say media criticism gets in the way of political leaders doing their jobs.

Interestingly, Republicans, who claim to support smaller government, are less likely today than Democrats to support the watchdog role of the press. Back in 1999, when Democrats were running most of the federal government, they were less likely to recognize the important watchdog role of the press, according to the study.

Seven in 10 Americans see it as a good thing when news organizations take a “strong pro-American point of view,” according to the survey. A narrow majority of Americans – 51 percent – believe that news organizations generally “stand up for America.” However, many more people believe some news organizations are becoming too critical of America, 46 percent, than say they are becoming too pro-American, 25 percent.

Most Americans, 53 percent, believe that news organizations are politically biased, while just 29 percent say they are careful to remove bias from their reports. When it comes to describing the press, twice as many say news organizations are “liberal,” 51 percent, than “conservative,” 26 percent, while 14 percent say neither phrase applies.

None of this is too surprising.

When Democrats felt their man’s ox was being gored, they weren’t happy about it. When Republicans feel like their guys are in charge of the government, they would like to see the press back off.

Yet, everyone agrees the press has a liberal bias to begin with.

There’s one way the press can shake that image. It can assume its proper role in society all the time – giving government grief and holding it accountable for fraud, waste, abuse and corruption no matter who is in office.

And that’s just not what is happening today.

This week, for instance, the White House forecast that the federal budget deficit would explode to a record $455 billion this year.

While the press was quick to point the finger at the White House, which certainly deserves some attention for its role in higher spending, deficits are built upon individual spending programs. How many individual spending bills have you ever seen analyzed critically by the press “watchdogs”?

It just doesn’t happen.

Most reporters who cover government cover it like they would cover an old friend – or worse. The late Warren Brookes suggested reporters who covered government had a vested interest in seeing government grow. When it grew, the reporters themselves grew in relative importance.

That is a frightening thought. Yet, I think there is all too much truth in his observation.

I’ve said it for a long time, the answer to the institutional problems in the press is not more “fair and balanced” reporting. It’s not more “conservative” media. The answer is to return journalism to its roots – to reawaken the press to its vital role in a free society.

It’s time to remember who we are. We’re watchdogs.

That’s why we have a First Amendment protecting our profession. The founders recognized how important a free press is to a free society.

If only those working in it understood. If only my colleagues could get it through their heads. If only the establishment media would become a little less establishment and a little more independent.


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