Sunday, October 07, 2007

Journalism done good

Let's take a brief break (three, two, one, go) from stuff that news- papers do wrong and look at one of the things they do right. Today's example isn't the sort of reporting that brings down a crooked official or yanks noses away from the public trough, but it does a pretty good job at one of those essential, if unsung, things that journalism needs to do: Securing and maintaining a wide space for political debate on public issues.

As you've probably noticed, the acceptable public stands on Crime In Our Streets range between tougher and tougherer. And with the Party of Portraying Disabled Combat Veterans as Bin Laden's Poker Buddies Lincoln waiting to unleash its orkish hordes from behind the Black Gate, nobody wants to be south of Tougherer when it comes to Our Kids.

The centerpiece at hand isn't perfect (hed writers, you'd do well to throw out "predators," which is the sort of WAR ON TERROR phrasing that hands control of your language over to the most manipulative of your sources). But it does a solid job of making sure there's room to talk about crime control and public safety in terms other than the ones that look good on your local Fox News At 10 broadcast. As in: "Predator" laws might make make you feel good, and they tend to make for very friendly bandwagons. But there's strong reason to doubt they fix any problems they claim to, and the unintended consequences have yet to be explored.

Could the U.S. press stand to do a lot more by way of widening the space for public debate? Gee, Biff, let's see:

Brown aide plays down US talk of Iran threat
Diplomatic relations between Britain and the United States over Iran are under increasing strain after Gordon Brown's special security adviser warned that American claims about Tehran's military capability should be taken 'with a pinch of salt'.

You'll notice, should you read on, that the adviser isn't saying the American claims are per se wrong, much less suggesting that Tehran is now the world's leading exporter of puppies, kittens and birthday cake. He's suggesting that there needs to be more on the table than Bomb 'Em Now and No, Bomb 'Em Yesterday, and the Grauniad is making sure there are enough seats at the table for that discussion to take place.

The point of a free press in a democracy isn't to ensure that everybody gets to talk (in the eloquent formulation of Alexander Mieklejohn). It's to make sure everything that needs to be said gets said. Big U.S. newspapers that don't want to be writing regretful editorials four years hence might want to give this example some consideration in the here and now.


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