If the Founding Fathers looked at the list of 1997 Pulitzer Prize winners, they might ask themselves why they bothered crafting the First Amendment.

It’s not that I have anything against a scare story about dying fish (Public Service Award), or reporting on technical problems in airliners (Beat Reporting Award), or yet another journalist’s first-hand account of what it’s like battling AIDS (National Reporting Award). No, though I admit not reading a single one of these stories or any other Pulitzer Prize winner this year, I’m certain they were all admirable, readable projects.

The trouble with them — and most of the stories the press focuses on today — is that they have little or nothing to do with the central role of a free press in a free society.

What is that? I bet if you asked 100 contemporary journalists, you would get 100 different answers. But, if you think about our nation’s heritage and our unique constitutional commitment to a free press, there really is only one correct response: The central role of a free press in a free society is to serve as a watchdog on government.

This may come as a shock to many of my colleagues, but that’s what we’re supposed to be doing as journalists most of the time. That’s what James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had in mind. Jefferson, in fact, said if given the choice between a government and a free press, he’d choose the latter. I’m with him.

But I wonder about the shifting priorities of the nation’s mainstream, establishment press. Today’s journalists rarely investigate corruption, fraud, waste and abuse in government. The announcement of Pulitzer Prize winners is just the latest evidence. Look at the front page of your daily newspaper today and see for yourself: How often do you see the press really going after big government?

Even the biggest news agencies shy away from such stories. What do you get from “60 Minutes” these days? Exposes of used car dealers. Where’s “Nightline”? Ted Koppel says we shouldn’t expect his show to do any real investigative reporting because ABC just don’t have the resources. And the New York Times? Nine times out of 10, the nation’s newspaper of record acts more like a government lapdog than watchdog.

This isn’t just a case of “liberal bias” in the press. That’s an old story — true, but old. This phenomenon of giving government a free ride is something dangerously new. In fact, lately it seems like the news media are acting like the public relations arm of government.

What do I mean? OK, watch the evening news — any night, any network. Here’s what you will see: One societal problem after another. Crisis after crisis. And always at least the hint of a solution — another government regulation, another bureaucracy, a little more taxpayer spending. It’s uncanny. There’s little difference in the print media, either. It’s as if the nation’s major media moguls have begun seeing themselves as official ministers of information rather than challengers of the status quo.

Let’s face facts. If there really is a major crisis in this country, it’s not in the oceans, it’s in Washington, D.C. It’s a crisis of confidence in the president, the vice president, the speaker of the House and right on down the line. Every one of our major leaders is beset by scandal, the object of ridicule and derision and, in most cases, a witness shy of indictment.

Yet the press hasn’t been there. Not too long ago, the White House was distributing to reporters a 331-page report alleging that a right-wing media conspiracy was behind all of the many scandals it was facing. Most journalists brushed off the report with a good chuckle and moved on.

But, you know what? There’s a certain amount of truth to what the White House was saying. The mainstream press hasn’t done the digging when it comes to White House scandals. It has been the American Spectator, my own Western Journalism Center and a few other little news outlets that have broken many of the biggest stories. What infuriated the White House was not that the mainstream press missed the story — it was that the emerging alternative press didn’t.

It’s time for some reflection about priorities in the press. It’s time to get back to basics. It’s time for journalists to rediscover their primary mission. It’s time for some good, old-fashioned muckraking. If we do that, maybe next year’s Pulitzer Prizes won’t reflect such mediocrity.

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