What is the role of an independent media in a functional democracy? As former President George W. Bush put it this week, “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account.” Not so long ago it was taken for granted that freedom of the press was indispensable to a truly free society. Accountability, so important as a check to unfettered power, draws from a number of institutional checks and balances. Vigilant levers of government can stymie legislation by executive fiat, while voters have the final say on whether their elected representatives will remain in office.
The media, despite the its many warts and indiscretions, has a similar role in checking the power of the state. The fourth estate is both a resource for the voting public and its protector, standing sentinel against corruption, abuse of power and the murky insider workings of the smoke-filled rooms.
Critics rightly contend that the media is not objective in some of its reporting, but that is more a feature of the human condition than it is a conspiracy. It is not a coincidence that the first institution to suffer in a totalitarian regime is a free press, and since our country’s founding, the first amendment has codified the centrality of the institution to human freedom and dignity.
The media is not always fair and balanced, and when it is blatantly biased it deserves criticism. But criticism is different from condemnation, and critique of a specific journalistic work does not necessitate the deligimitization of an honorable profession.