The Crisis in the US Media and the 2004 Election

Without a press that can function independently of government the public is left disarmed

A critical question raised by the 2004 election in the US is the role played by the media. Democracy and vibrant public discussion are intimately related. An election campaign in a democratic society is a time to encourage public discussion on the most pressing policy issues facing the society. The debate and discussion during an election campaign can become the basis for the policy decisions that the successful candidates will be under pressure to implement.

Such a process traditionally requires a press which raises the issues and supports the exchange and consideration of a broad range of viewpoints. The 2004 election in the US was a test of the nature and quality of democracy in the US. It was a test of how the supposed "democracy" the US government claims to be promoting in other countries functions at home.

The 2004 election campaign was notable by its failure to provide the needed debate on issues. Take the US policy in Iraq, as a commentator in the current issue of "Foreign Affairs" notes:

The recent American presidential campaign has had the perverse effect of postponing any serious national debate on the future US course in Iraq.

James Dobbins, Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War

The writer does not directly indict the press for the failure. Others, including a number of professional journalists, however, have been critiquing the US press and trying to analyze the problem that is at the root of the current media crisis. In a segment of a recent PBS program, the Jim Lehrer Report1, several journalists discussed the crisis in their profession. They acknowledged the low regard with which the public in the US views the press. They also noted the long term attack on the press as "liberal", and the lack of professionalism among some of their own people. They considered what actions are needed to change the critical view of them held by the public.

Another analysis of the problem is offered by Jonathan Mermin in an article in the "World Policy Journal". Mermin proposes that the US press fails in its professional obligation to be an independent critic of government:

A fundamental tenet of our First Amendment tradition is that journalists do not simply recount what government officials say, but function instead as the people's 'watchdog' over the government, subjecting its words and deeds to independent scrutiny.

He admits, though "this is rare." Mermin points particularly to the example of Judith Miller's articles in the New York Times in early 2003. These articles stressed the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, echoing uncritically the pretext being given by the US government to justify its invasion of Iraq. When asked about her articles, Miller's response was:

My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal.

Without a press that can function independently of government, and which is able to critique government and its actions, the public is left disarmed. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the 2004 election could be anything but a rubber stamp for the incumbent.2

A different situation prevailed, however, in the 2002 Presidential election in South Korea. In the Korean election there was a press that functioned to help Korean netizens replace the conservative President with a reform candidate, Roh Moo Myun, who had been outside the mainstream of Korean politics.

In a talk given at Harvard in December 2004, Oh Yeon Ho, the publisher of the OhmyNews online newspaper, spoke about the role of his newspaper in the Korean election. He describes the collaboration between Korean netizens and the online newspaper.

He gives as an example an event that happened on the eve of the Korean Presidential election. Eight hours before the start of voting, another candidate who had been supporting Roh, withdrew from the campaign. The conservative newspaper "Chosun Daily" was quick to call Korean voters to follow this example and withdraw their support for Roh. The online community of Korean netizens who were backing Roh sprang into action, posting messages about the challenge and urging each other to help to counter it. OhmyNews covered the netizens activities, updating coverage every 30 minutes. "Thanks to nonstop reporting through the night, OhmyNews was the epicenter of reform-minded netizens," Oh says proudly.

Compare this episode with the way the US press covered the netizen movement supporting the Howard Dean campaign during the Democratic primaries. There was no press in the US like OhmyNews. Instead the mass media was filled with negative campaign ads. There was pressure exerted on the Dean campaign to focus on traditional campaign tactics. Without a professional press ally to challenge the conservative role being played by the media, the netizens movement supporting Dean lost the ability to counter the conservative media and the conservative powers in the Democratic Party.

OhmyNews is an online newspaper that has a professional newspaper staff, but which welcomes articles from citizen reporters. The newspaper also welcomes discussion of its articles by readers, and seeks to involve its readers in a participatory role in adding to the content of the newspaper. Mr Oh reports that the newspaper has 40 professional journalists and 35,000 citizen reporters submitting articles. When articles by citizen reporters appear, the citizen reporter may receive a small sum of money.

Mr Oh's talk about the experience in Korea was presented at a conference held at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in December 2004.3 The schedule focused on topics like the weakness of the US netizen movement and the ways that business models can help to shape politics. The program for the conference did not question the effect of the lack of a newspaper like OhmyNews on the US election campaign.

In an interview that OhmyNews journalists did with the Managing Editor of the Washington Post, they asked whether he thought that a newspaper like OhmyNews in the US could have helped the Kerry campaign. He replied:

That's an intriguing question. There was a point early in the campaign when it seemed that Howard Dean had harnessed the power of the Internet, but it wasn't enough to lead him to the Democratic nomination.

Will the current ferment among professional journalists in the US lead them to find a way to ally with the online netizen community? The continuation of the occupation of Iraq and the US government's efforts to demonize Iran and North Korea present professional journalists and the online netizen community with a continuing challenge. The 2004 election in the US presented the world with the desire of netizens in the US to challenge the conservative pro war politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties. The lack of a professional press to support the netizens was a handicap they could not overcome. Will the post election ferment over the role of the professional press make it possible to solve this problem? The future of the professional media in the US is in limbo.

Will there be professional media efforts to contribute to a form of online press like OhmyNews which welcomes netizen reporters and their contributions? The answer to this question may well determine whether there can be any effective political opposition to challenge the conservative media and conservative politicians in upcoming future elections in the US. (Ronda Hauben)