the Media Accountable
Watching the Media
In an industry protected by the First
Amendment, holding the media accountable is a job that falls into the hands of
a variety of groups.
Some media outlets have appointed ombudsmen to monitor
their content. Other -- less formal -- media screeners include a constantly evolving
band of media watchdog organizations, readers and bloggers.
it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers,
or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the
latter," Thomas Jefferson said in 1787.
The role of a free press as guarded
by the First Amendment has always been a basic principle of the United States
and has put the news media in a specially protected sphere. But in recent years,
in light of highly publicized media scandals, the general public has questioned
whether the press exercises its freedoms responsibly, according to a recent survey.
The 2004 State of the First Amendment survey conducted by The First Amendment
Center and American Journalism Review shows that four in 10 Americans believe
the press has too much freedom.
The study also found that 61 percent
of those polled agreed with the statement: "The falsifying or making up of stories
in the American news media is a widespread problem."
"It is important
to note that poor showings in public opinion polls, layered upon their own concerns
about the press today, can cause journalists, as well as their audiences, to lose
sight of the great good the American press does on a daily basis," Paul McMasters,
ombudsman for the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, wrote in his article,
"Low Marks," in AJR's August/September 2004 edition.
their advocates need to find new and better ways to deliver that story to the
American public. These findings in the 2004 State of the First Amendment survey
lend a new level of urgency to that assignment," McMasters added.
are not regulated and don't have licenses that can be revoked if there is some
wrongdoing, said Mark Feldstein, journalism program director at George Washington
University. One of the prices of this freedom, according to Feldstein, is the
right to be irresponsible.
The potential for sloppy journalism has led
to the development of several mechanisms to keep a watchful eye on journalists.
The Ombudsman and Readers
The role of an ombudsman, once referred
to by American Journalism Review as the "loneliest job in the newsroom," represents
a relatively new system of checks and balances and acts independently from the
reporting and editorial process.
The first newspaper ombudsman in the
United States was installed in 1967 to serve readers of The Courier-Journal and
The Louisville Times of Kentucky, according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen,
a nonprofit organization formed in 1980.
According to ONO, at least 46
media organizations now operate with ombudsmen.
"I think an ombudsman
is an ostentatious sign to the public that we are interested in what they are
saying," ONO executive secretary and San Diego Union Tribune ombudsman Gina Lubrano
told the Online NewsHour.
Lubrano emphasized the role that readers play
in the ombudsman's job.
"Readers are very, very smart people. They point
a lot of things out to us," she said.
It's not just at the San Diego Tribune
where the voice of the readers is heard most often via the ombudsman.
New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, the first ombudsman for the Times,
said that of his 25 columns, 24 have come from issues raised by readers.
Likening the ombudsman to the "complaint department" in the newsroom, Okrent said
while he has no control over the editorial board, he is able to raise consciousness
by pounding certain issues, like the use of anonymous sources.
filled his post Dec. 1, 2003, as recommended by the paper's independent committee,
led by Allan Siegel, which conducted an internal review of newsroom policies and
more specifically how Times reporter Jayson Blair fabricated at least three dozen
stories at the paper.
Another line of
defense for media accountability is the so-called watchdog groups, which often
have a political bent.
Accuracy in Media, launched in 1969, does not
shy away from its conservative role, according to AIM media analyst Roger Aronoff.
"But as a media watchdog, as critics of others, we hold ourselves to
a very high standard of being accurate," Aronoff added.
founder Reed Irvine passed away in November, with some experts calling him the
first to allege a liberal bias in the media.
"He was a pioneer of the
liberal bias argument," Michael Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism
Review, said, as reported in The Los Angeles Times. "He opened the discussion
... and [that] was a useful thing. There is such a thing as liberal bias. He just
raised the issue, which was a kind of victory in itself."
Fair and Accuracy
in Reporting or FAIR, one of several liberal groups, argues that the "main bias
is corporate," said FAIR senior analyst Steve Rendall.
Rendall said FAIR
is progressive and calls "attention to the corporate concentration of our media."
Both of these groups employ some of the same techniques for getting their messages
AIM publishes a semimonthly newsletter, broadcasts a daily radio
commentary and syndicates a weekly newspaper column, according to Aronoff.
In addition, the group attends the annual shareholders' meetings of large media
companies and encourages its members to send news organizations postcards and
letters about what they consider biased or inaccurate coverage.
publishes Extra!, a media criticism magazine, and produces the weekly radio program
CounterSpin. FAIR also sends action alerts via an e-mail listserve, encouraging
recipients to contact media outlets that they think have unfairly covered a story.
A last group of media watchers, Web loggers,
or bloggers, has received more attention since the scandal surrounding the documents
from a CBS 60 Minutes report questioning President Bush's National Guard service.
"In the last two years, the blogosphere -- a vast, free-floating, often
quirky club open to anyone with a modem and some opinions -- has been growing
in influence, with some one-man operations boasting followings larger than those
of small newspapers," Washington Post media expert Howard Kurtz wrote.
A variety of bloggers -- some academic, partisan or media junkies with strong
opinions -- has emerged to call the press on alleged biases, factual errors or
shortcomings. Jay Rosen, current chairman of New York University's Journalism
Department, launched his blog, pressthink.org, in August 2003, and regularly posts
commentaries and critiques on the news media. A left-leaning blog, known as Fact-esque,
is dedicated to watching political reporting in The New York Times and other news
organizations, declaring that "the corporate press would rather entertain us than
as media watchdogs gained national attention for helping debunk the documents
used in the 60 Minutes report. Immediately after the broadcast aired, a gaggle
of conservative bloggers -- notably Scott Johnson of powerlineblog.com, and Charles
Johnson, who runs littlegreenfootballs.com -- challenged the report and raised
legitimate questions that the mainstream press then picked up on.
bloggers acquired the name "pajama brigade" when former CBS executive Jonathan
Klein said on Fox News in September 2004 that "these bloggers have no checks and
balances. ... You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers
of checks and balances and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."
But, many in the blogosphere now proudly embrace that moniker and their self-appointed
role as media watchers.
Not everyone believes that bloggers have assisted
in holding the media accountable to its mistakes, however.
Washington Post political reporter and columnist David Broder charged in his column
that journalism standards were deteriorating, he mentioned bloggers as contributing
to the problem.
"When the Internet opened the doors to scores of journalists
who had no allegiance at all to the skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional
news-gathering, the bars were already down in many old-line media organizations,"
Broder wrote in his Sept. 26 column.
Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief
of the libertarian monthly magazine Reason, disagreed with Broder.
little reason to believe that mainstream journalism is any more corrupt than it
ever was. ... Indeed, the only thing that has probably changed is that it's easier
to get caught, which should be a good thing," Gillespie wrote on his blog.
Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan said the Internet has improved accountability.
"Without the blogosphere, the arrogance and folly of [Howell] Raines [of the New
York Times] and [CBS NEWS anchor Dan] Rather would have continued long past their
expiration dates. ... Blogs have helped bring these 'stars' back to earth," Sullivan
-- By Sheryl Silverman, Online