Lee Hamilton: When the news media fail, democracy suffers

If you watched Donald Trump’s pre-inaugural press conference, you may have overlooked a telling and worrisome moment. A CNN reporter tried to ask the president-elect about the extent of his ties to Russian officials. The president-elect shut him down.

The fact that a politician would sidestep an uncomfortable question isn’t unusual. What should cause concern is what happened next: Nothing. The press corps moved on, without protesting or taking up CNN’s line of questioning and pushing for an answer.

Why do I find this disquieting? Because journalists play a crucial role in our representative democracy. Citizens cannot act responsibly if they’re kept in the dark about public affairs. And it’s the media’s role to make sure that does not happen.

Its performance in recent years, however, has not been reassuring. Before the election, how much were you reading or seeing about the depth and intensity of the frustrations in large swaths of the country that enabled Trump’s victory? There was plenty of political news. But it was just coverage of politics, polls, personalities – virtually nothing of substance about the crucial issues facing the country.

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At the same time, politicians have become adept at manipulating the media. Freewheeling news conferences are rare. We are losing important ways and means of holding politicians accountable.

Nor are citizens helping. In the modern media universe, they seek the media that confirm their views and provide the information they want to believe.

This is worrisome. But even worse would be a press that doesn’t push on despite the obstacles. I want to see media coverage of public affairs that’s dogged, skeptical and aggressive, that investigates actions of government and politicians, that checks facts, calls candidates and officeholders to account, flags misstatements, half-truths, and outright lies. I want the media to be tough on politicians and candidates and not let them get away with evasions and manipulations.

Democracy works only with accountability – strict accountability of elected and appointed officials to the people of the country. Without citizens insisting on it and the media demanding it, our system of representative government is in peril.

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Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.