The story was broken in 2008 by a low-level reporter from a medium-sized newspaper in northern India. Despite intense pressure from corporate lobbyists and monetary inducements from politicians, the reporter persisted, and the investigation has now taken on a life of its own, with other, larger media organizations getting into the act.
That kind of investigative journalism has had a long and proud history in the United States as well. From Henry Lloyd in the 1880s, exposing corruption in business and politics, to contemporary journalist Seymour Hersh, whose writings on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam won him the Pulitzer Prize, there is a venerable tradition of speaking truth to power. But is anyone listening anymore?
As newspapers close shop and television channels focus their attention on “balloon boy” stories and coverage of natural disasters, the fact-finding arm of the fourth estate is slowly withering away. And we, the citizens of the modern world’s first democracy, bear a fair degree of culpability for the paradigm shift of this last decade. We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the antics of suburban housewives and wannabe singers; we have signaled our preference for charisma over competence; and we have passively accepted that there must be two sides to every issue. Thanks to our neglect, responsible reportage has moved to the self-selecting environs of the internet, available to everyone but found only by the most determined, most engaged seekers of truth.
As we devolve into apathetic spectators of “news-as-entertainment,” we run the risk of imperiling our democracy, which depends on an enlightened citizenry for its effectiveness. If we continue to use media to seek validation for our biases, if we restrict ourselves to voices who offer us the comfort of our convictions rather than challenges to our belief systems, we cannot complain when mainstream media organizations take the easy way out and cater to those stunted tastes.
In the spirit of the approaching New Year, let’s make some resolutions for 2011: We will look for reporters and journalists who offer facts, not the pabulum of predigested opinion, and we will support them. We will step outside our media comfort zone. We will think for ourselves.