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Future of Journalism Has "Huge Consequences" for Nation, Opines Lee Hamilton '52

October 9, 2009

Lee Hamilton Point.jpgOctober 9, 2009, Greencastle, Ind. — "What we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio, and see on television or online helps to shape how public policy gets discussed," writes Lee Hamilton, veteran statesman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University, in a newspaper op-ed. "The crosscurrents of reasoned discourse and angry outbursts that have characterized much of the debate on health care reform are a perfect illustration of how coverage by the mainstream media, the exhortations of talk radio hosts, and extreme theories spread through the blogosphere all combine to influence the dialogue of democracy."

Hamilton, a Democrat who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group, notes, "You can find the crucial role that an independent media plays in a democracy in any basic journalism text. Unlike partisan commentators US Capitol 2-2008.jpgand bloggers, its first obligation is to the truth: to provide the basic information that a self-governing people relies on to make discerning judgments. This means that journalists have a heavy responsibility to check the facts and be accurate, since their fundamental role is to foster understanding of issues, players and government, not to stoke contempt or praise for them."

He adds, "The press helps make representative democracy work. If it does its job, it maintains a healthy skepticism of those in power-and of those who seek to defeat them at the ballot box. It should perform vital oversight not only of government, but also of the special interests that seek to influence it. It should provide a forum for public dialogue. It should report comprehensively on issues in a manner that does not reduce them to simple sound bites. And it should strive to help readers, listeners and viewers understand what is significant and what is not. Without a robust, independent and professionally competent media helping Americans understand our government and politics, and giving them the tools to make good judgments about them, our democracy will fail."Lee Hamilton Students 2004-1.jpg

But Hamilton argues, "This historic role of the press is under siege today. In part, of course, it's being undermined by the sorry financial state that many newspapers and mainstream news programs find themselves in. But it is also being compromised by the blurring that has taken place in recent years between news and opinion, and. more destructively, between news and entertainment." (at left: Hamilton chatting with DePauw students in historic East College)

The man who has been praised for his bipartisanship believes media outlets are increasingly "more anxious to comment on the news than it is to cover and report it" and are dominated by "feisty advocates for a particular point of view, belligerent personalities, and wordsmiths promoted for their cleverness and temerity ... It has reached the point where people attempting to be fair, reasoned and discriminating on many television shows either give up or find themselves in the awkward position of being marginalized. The political center may be alive and well among Americans on the ground, but it is very hard to find on the air -- when, for instance, was the last time you saw a program on abortion that wasn't all about the clash of pro-life and pro-choice advocates, rather than the more subtle views held by many Americans?"Lee Hamilton Strengthening Congress.jpg

In Hamilton's view, "A world filled with partisan blogs and hyper-bloviating commentators can work to a politician's advantage, giving him or her the ability to stoke public support by appealing only to the faithful. But the travails besetting journalism today are alarming to those of us who believe that democracy is not simply a matter of mobilizing the masses; it is instead about searching for common ground among competing interests on difficult issues and then painstakingly building support for compromise and reasoned solutions."

He concludes, "All who believe in representative democracy must understand that what's happening in journalism today has huge consequences for the quality and vitality of our republic."

Read the complete column by clicking here.

Lee H. Hamilton is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He recently authored Strengthening Congress. Learn more in this story.

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