I still believe in journalism. If I have a religion it is the words I have faith in, trusting in their power to expose lies and undermine injustice. But as my best friend heads off to the Naval Academy, I cannot help but think that journalism has failed him; that I have failed him.

Mara Gay

If a journalist’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” these should be the golden years of the profession — the president and his administration have provided us, after all, with a stream of policy decisions and principles that beg for rebuttal.

Instead, it is journalism itself that has been exposed, writers as fabricators, media organizations as political think tanks, newspapers as irresponsible, unconscionable wastes of trees. The New York Times tries its hand at responsible journalism and finds its reporters imprisoned for failing to reveal their sources. Partisan pundits scream unintelligibly at one another from the television screen, masquerading as intellectuals and patriots.

This friend of mine is many things — generous, loyal and patriotic — but he is not political, and to him the Navy is an opportunity to fulfill a duty to country, a duty he believes we all share. Were the media as courageous he, they would present the American public with the facts, an act that would quickly dismiss the idea of this conflict as a righteous cause. The truth is that Iraq is a war conceived under the most dubious of circumstances, waged without enough troops or sufficient armor.

I have been a lover of words my whole life, and it is my job to express ideas in their form. But lately, the words do not flow onto the laptop with the same speed and conviction as the lies I am trying so desperately to challenge, and I have no idea which violation of human rights is more worthy of a column or which scandal more necessary to investigate and expose.

The true identity of Deep Throat, the anyonymous source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down the Nixon administration in 1973, was revealed last week. While it could have been a refreshing reminder of our responsibility as journalists to question the status quo, the media preferred to discuss whether the men were heroes or traitors.

They missed the point. Watergate is small fries compared to the lies and scandal that plague today’s political arena.

The Bush administration is the scandal, and everything necessary to undermine its legitimacy is right in front of our faces — there is no need for mysterious sources or porn-star aliases.

Right-wing activist judges are shoved through the Senate and onto the nation’s highest courts with a ruthless disregard for minority rights. Education is embarrassingly underfunded, millions of Americans live without health insurance and the gap between the rich and the poor is ever widening as corporations are given more handouts than urban Detroit.

And then there is Iraq. I am outraged at the war on terror and where it has taken us. But it is journalism that is supposed to function as a “fourth estate,” a final check on the powers of government, the ultimate guardian of the people and their right to know. And instead of demanding open and honest debate, the media has allowed the administration’s greatest lie to pose as a romantic exercise in goodwill, duty and patriotism.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein remind us that when journalism is responsible it can do great things. They have provided the modern media with an opportunity it cannot afford to pass up: the opportunity to be ashamed of our gross negligence, our reverence to political balance over facts, and our loyalty to the large corporations that own the media instead of the American people, who need desperately for us to ask the tough questions.

These are trying times for someone who believes in the ability of journalism to change the world one word at a time. My best friend is leaving for the Naval Academy at the end of the month. And while I struggle to understand how he could entrust his life to the same government that brought us the tragedy of Iraq and all its disturbing vignettes, I need to be able to trust in journalism more now than ever before. It has to be strong enough to challenge the authority that he must blindly follow, to question the war that he cannot.

 

Gay is a Daily editorial board member. She can be reached at maracl@umich.edu.

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