Thursday, May 8, 2008

Whiter Our Local Watchdogs?

I don't care what everyone else says, I think Mike Masterson still has some good days, and today is one of them. He opens with a vignette about the nearly-departed UA chancellor who will not pass up the state-funded moving expenses and the chance to spend an expense-paid month in an 11,800-square foot, $2.8 million mansion on three prime acres. Then he goes from exposing pride and pomposity to a serious discussion of the failure of local media to do their jobs.

No one any longer expects serious journalism from television news, but Masterson took advantage of a noontime speech to the Harrison Kiwanis Club to explain what he believes every local newspaper should represent in its community. As he tells it:

I believe those good folks actually understood my ramblings as I relayed the critical need for papers to produce relevant (and often controversial ) stories that disclose truth wherever it leads. My problem is that the majority fail to even come close. Instead, they offer simple feature stories or accounts of meetings and boring bureaucratic processes rather than digging beneath the surface of pressing issues. There exists great reluctance to seek and report truth even when it screams to be freed.

The result, sad to say, is that every community without an assertive and reliable paper remains largely uninformed and unenlightened—except by word of mouth and the Internet—about matters that demand careful thought and action. Shirking responsibility is not why we have a First Amendment. I believe that this constitutional provision expects the Fourth Estate to be a watchdog that questions and ensures the public’s best interests are upheld.

That would be nice. It is also unlikely. The Prime Directive for chain newspapers is to maximize advertising revenues and to minimize salary expenses for good reporters. Serious investigative reporting of the type advocated by Masterson could actually reduce advertising revenue from the offended interests. All of that high-minded stuff about about freedom of the press only surfaces when someone suggests repealing the special sales tax exemption granted to newspaper advertising.

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