Dow Jones Chairman on Media Power: We're Goliath, Not David

December 13th, 2006 4:19 PM

One of the most persistent tics of the passive-aggressive press is its denials of its power, that it doesn't run the country, or at least try to run the country. All that journalism-school boilerplate about how the media is merely a watchdog, or like it's the BASF of democracy, you know, it doesn't make everything, it just makes the secret ingredient that makes everything better? Baloney. Some of us signed up for the media-criticism business because the media want to pretend they're not major players in the political process that make every other actor in the political system try to figure out how to capture the warm glow of media adulation, or at least avoid it like an obstacle course. So when Dow Jones Chairman Peter Kann wrote an editorial on the press (see it over on his company's Opinion Journal), I liked the end the best:

The press is at least partially responsible for greater public skepticism toward traditional institutions in America. But the truth, not lost on our public, is that the press is a large and powerful institution, too: "60 Minutes" is more powerful than almost all of the subjects it exposes. This newspaper, arguably, has more influence on national economic policy than do most corporations. Networks are owned by giant industrial corporations, magazines by entertainment conglomerates, and most newspapers by national chains. Given these realities, we cannot plausibly pretend to be a David out there smiting Goliaths and expect the public to believe it.

The beginning's pretty darn good, too:

Thomas Jefferson, a better president than we've had in a very long time, penned a line back in 1787: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." By 1807, in his seventh year as president and after seven years of being subjected to severe press criticism, he wrote: "I deplore the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity and the mendacious spirit of those who write them."

You'll be relieved to know that Jefferson did remain true to his primary principle: "The press," he concluded, "is an evil for which there is no remedy. Liberty depends upon freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost." He was right then, and we are right now, to prefer a free press, however flawed, to any controlled alternative. Still, as we watched CNN flashing its pre-election logos each day--"Broken Borders," "Broken Government," "Broken Politics," Broken Everything--I can't help thinking the media, too, is in need of some mending.

In between is a decent list of the foibles and follies that trouble most media navel-gazing sessions, but all these problems are worth discussing -- especially when the fever of media arrogance about "broken" everything else needs to be broken.