Jennifer Hanson | 2008 Sidey Essay Winner
Journalists carry the weight of many. All lives, as parts of society, connect directly with those who discover, interpret and bring news to the masses. The very nature of journalism is fraught with the concurrent potentials to strengthen and weaken democracy. As the United States' federal governmental structure shifts to emphasize presidential importance, pressure upon journalists to deliver news—truthful, interesting, relevant news—regarding the executive branch is ever more imperative.
Our nation's free press originated from the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution intended to prevent governmental abuse of power. Drafters of the constitution recognized the importance of a watchdog press. The United States' government, as outlined in 1787 in the U.S. Constitution, was designed as a democratic trinity—three equal branches to separate powers and hold each other accountable. The president's original jurisdiction was only "the executive power" (the privilege and obligation to faithfully execute legislation from Congress).
Two-hundred and twenty-one years later, the blueprints seem out-dated. Executive power has grown substantially, especially in the last 100 years. The presidency today "has become the engine of national policy formation, especially where money and war are concerned" (Crenson, 2007). The president is now "practically the master of the nation's budget" (Crenson, 2007). While Congress has kept the constitutional power to declare war, the power has not been exercised since World War II. War has not been officially declared—and yet, the president as Commander in Chief sends his military to conflicts all over the world at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
The presidential rise is largely brought on by the decline in citizen activism. The constitutional framers structured Congress to flourish from popular support and set it up to be the "dominant institution of American government." The solo-act of the presidency would ideally serve as the perfect complement, able to provide a proper balance (Crenson, 2007). Recently, however, time has diminished public participation thereby weakening congressional strength and leaving room for presidential powers to expand.
Statistically, modern journalists are aiding the uneven playing field with their inherent public influence. In a study cited by Farnsworth and Lichter, "both print and broadcast media focused heavily on the executive branch" and "presidential administration comprised more than 70 percent of all discussions of government in national and local newspapers" in the years 1981, 1993, and 2001 (Farnsworth, 2006).
Crenson and Ginsberg argue that in the 20th and 21st centuries, those seeking presidential office pursue life-long quests to obtain the office. For these individuals, it is often the opportunity to make history. This relates directly to Hugh S. Sidey's statement that "the presidency remains the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized political office man has devised" (Sidey, 2000). The original limitations on the presidency can feel binding and insufficient for people with such high ambitions. But with power comes responsibility.
And with responsibility come temptations. Scandals continue to plague the presidency. With pressure on the presidency like the kind Sidey, Crenson and Ginsberg all described, incentive to suppress or cover up imperfections soar. This principle begins the moment a person's mind becomes pregnant with the desire to become president. In the past, watchdog journalists have stopped the bad from getting worse. The presidency, as a public servant office held by an imperfect human being, must be reported with the persistence and dedication needed for any area of journalism. A certain sense of trust and patriotism is projected onto the president, and for a journalist to feel any less than a conviction for absolute truth would be an irreparable social disservice. Another would be the portrayal of citizen participation as anything less than pivotal to democracy.
Again, Crenson and Ginsberg attributed growing presidential power to public inaction. Therefore, journalists must strive to inspire the common American into participation. Bridging governmental functions and the public is the foremost function of political journalism. Therein lays another heavy social responsibility to not only call the public to arms, but to adequately and accurately inform them. Such journalistic actions are the common person's only hope to understanding their government, being inspired to participate, and having ample information from which to make intelligent decisions based on their personal ethos. The average citizen, juggling personal lives, jobs and families simply does not have time to research the depths of the political spectrum in whatever spare time they have at the end of the day.
Competition for print journalists within this task has increased drastically within the past decade. The invention of the Internet and its improved user-friendliness has mobilized a wave of individuals whose minds are exploding with ideas and opinions. Their words are uploaded onto the Internet at the click of a button and ready to be received by anybody with access. Politically-themed blogging forums such as MyDD.com: Direct Democracy for People-Powered Politics, Move-on.org, and BlogforAmerica.com produce wellsprings of blogs, columns and articles produced by individual regardless of profession. And the public is catching on. Their popularity stems from their originality, freshness and timeliness—they seem to perpetually be a step ahead of mainstream news. Another major competitor is "infotainment" on cable television (most notably "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart), which causes blurring of reality with entertainment-based fiction.
Print journalists must meet this challenge head-on. As individuals trained and seasoned in media ethics, responsibility and neutrality, there must be more of an effort to beat bloggers and comedians by the clocks and hearts of audiences. Adversely, the Internet can also be used for their advantage. Now more than ever, print journalists need to expand into the digital plane to compete with less-professional bloggers receiving attention and respect from the general public. Timely, fresh, inspiring news: the goal is attainable, but requires a step up and out of print journalism's current position.
More challenges arise from what the Project for Excellence in Journalism calls "shrinking newsrooms." In its State of the News Media 2007 report, a cited study found that the overall print media full-time, U.S. workforce declined 5 percent from June 1992 to November 2002, and "all evidence suggests … those losses may have significantly accelerated" since. These nation-wide cuts happen to publications big and small, and present journalists with an increased burden.
As our nation faces this upcoming monumental presidential election, political print reporters must take seriously the link they uphold between a democratic public and their serving government. Without this link, democracy—the founding principle of our nation—dies. Therefore, a commitment to tireless coverage of the executive branch must be matched by efforts to increase public exposure and awareness of the legislative and judicial branches. Such actions may seem daunting, but directing and inspiring the American reader is one of a journalist's primary jobs, and doing so for the sake of grounding an imperative democratic value is among the most noble of achievements a reporter can possess.