Whatever happened to watchdog journalism?

The mainstream media, particularly the electronic arm, loves to identify slight differences of approach to issues by the two major political parties and inflate these differences into what purports to be “news.” Meanwhile, the real political news that is fundamental to a properly functioning democracy and an informed citizenry goes unreported, and we the people remained uninformed. The media has transformed itself into a propaganda arm of government rather than a watchdog.

Majorities of both political parties in Congress are clearly in favor of war. This is so despite the absence of a specific mission in Afghanistan, the fact that no military official can articulate what is necessary for a “victory,” and both parties refuse to confront the truth that the rationales given the citizenry by President Bush for invading Iraq were lies. Thus, the sacrifices of our military and Iraqis and Afghans were, and continue to be, a tragic waste of human lives. The strongest and most recent evidence that war is a bipartisan project was the overwhelming approval in April of last year to authorize $169.4 billion to fund war for a year. Such widespread agreement on the necessity for war precludes any debate in Congress in which uncomfortable questions might be raised.

Majorities in each political party agree that torture is a desirable activity for our country to continue and that the cause-effect relationship of torture to anti-American sentiment is irrelevant. No politician dares to question rendition, a practice characterized by forcibly removing foreign nationals from their homeland, placing them in cages for an indefinite period, and denying them any opportunity to challenge the “evidence” that caused their detention. President Obama campaigned against this tactic begun by the Bush/Cheney administration and promised to end it. Once in office, however, he reneged on his campaign pledge.

A bipartisan majority in Congress supports spying on citizens by our own government and has no interest in exercising any serious oversight of these activities. President Bush acknowledged that on five occasions he ordered the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without warrants to do so, a clear violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Each infraction carries a potential sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. In 2008, Bush and Cheney were desperate to remove themselves and the telecom corporations that carried out the spying from exposure to legal action for their admitted lawbreaking. They were successful; in July 2008, Bush signed the bill that amended FISA and gave him, Cheney, and their corporate collaborators the immunity they sought. It remains unknown who was spied upon and for what purpose.

There is solid bipartisan agreement in Congress that the much venerated “free market” does not apply to certain favored financial institutions, but it does to others, and that individual citizens must suffer the “market” consequences no matter how vicious and brutal they may be. In the fall of 2008, the nation faced a financial meltdown due to the recklessness of large financial institutions. When President Bush and Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke sounded the alarm and made the case for a federal bailout, voters swamped congressional offices in an unprecedented display of opposition to the bailout. Frightened, Congress rejected the request, but soon overcame its fright and any semblance of respect for the wishes of the public and voted overwhelmingly to bail out the industry. Largesse was heaped on Goldman Sachs, AIG, Citibank and others, while individual citizens who had been victimized by sub-prime loans were allowed to twist in the wind. This massive disaster calls for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, which served our nation well for six decades.

These examples illustrate that the media has abdicated its crucial function of informing the public about the issues that affect all of us, directly or indirectly. Especially in the electronic media, there is little to no reporting on government secrecy, contempt for the rule of law and the shredding of constitutional safeguards of our basic liberties, and the disregard for the wishes of the majority of citizens with respect to important policies. Thus, we are left with a country that is perpetually at war, conducts immoral acts that reduce the security of its citizens, supports executive, and therefore unaccountable, power, and enacts policies promoting the interests of the wealthy few. These conditions, which constitute the real news, prevail because the media fail to report them.

John Wilborn is a member of the nonprofit Louisville Media Reform.