Sizzle Trumping Steak

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jul 11, 2010 10:54 AM
Sizzle Trumping Steak

With one off-hand comment, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, set off a firestorm.

Democrats, including the president, became more interested in Boehner's metaphor -- "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon" -- than in the true substance of his comment.

President Obama fanned the flames by bringing it all up a day later.

It is just the kind of sniping that Americans are sick of hearing, and part of what fuels the tea party movement and the disintegrating support for elected Democrats.

Americans want their elected leaders to deal with real issues -- not fluff.

It also is why they have turned on the media, too. They are fed up with reporters who spend ridiculous amounts of time chasing after the latest political gaffe rather than actually investigating what politicians do.

With ratification of the First Amendment to the Constitution in December 1791, leaders of the newly formed United States agreed to protect the press from themselves -- from the government.

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," the amendment reads.

At the time, America's leaders believed a free press was critical to educating citizens about their government and to sustaining the republic.

Most presidents have understood this complex, often antagonistic relationship. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe."

Many scholars and journalists have considered the constitutional limits on a free press and journalists' responsibilities toward the public. Fewer have considered the relationship between journalists and sources.

That complicated relationship between access and bias deserves much more scrutiny.

You can drown in the amount of analysis, commentary and opinion available, but you have to look hard to find solid investigative reporting backed up with facts.

With some news organizations granted nearly unfettered access to government sources on one side or another of the political spectrum, the issue of bias has become more pressing. After all, the resulting reporting can greatly affect the way people vote.

Independence from bias is a key to journalists acting as watchdogs over government.

As the nation's media change and news coverage evolves from the simpler days of the printed word, how well journalism maintains its independence -- or how much its independence is degraded -- is quite critical to our political system.

We cannot afford to live in a fact-free environment. Yet finding out what the facts might be and what inferences can be drawn from them doesn't mean accepting at face value the press releases of government agencies, the White House, political campaigns or advocacy groups.

Good journalism requires an instinct for uncovering the real story without preconceiving it. Opinion is fine; opinion formed by facts (and adjusted for new facts) is better.

We have more heat than light in our political conversation and accompanying media coverage because the politically active are seekers of the flame from which, like a black hole, no light can escape.

The press plays a crucial role in our society. Its independence has been viewed, from Alexis de Tocqueville to today, as a peculiar but particularly successful element of America's representative government.

This new age of journalism, however, seems to favor focusing on the sizzle (silly stories that get a lot of web clicks) rather than the steak (investigative stories that reveal corruption, or contemplate the national impact of policy decisions).

A lot of stuff that isn't particularly dramatic oozes daily from the bureaucracy; it is important but rarely covered. Real news slips by us while headlines deal with superficial events.

Newspapers, big or small, must find ways to maintain the resources and commitment to cover those nondramatic yet important stories.

Think back to a seemingly small-time burglary at the Watergate complex.

Had there been no curiosity on the part of two newspaper reporters, Richard Nixon might have retired as the 37th president of the United States without a hint of drama.