The fourth estate and its responsibilities | Rich Elfers

Have you ever been asked “Gotcha!” questions in a public forum? This is what happened to Republican presidential candidates in the third debate recently. A few of the candidates called the moderators out on this behavior. It’s no wonder Republicans have listed “the liberal media bias” as one of their key talking points.

Have you ever been asked “Gotcha!” questions in a public forum? This is what happened to Republican presidential candidates in the third debate recently. A few of the candidates called the moderators out on this behavior. It’s no wonder Republicans have listed “the liberal media bias” as one of their key talking points.

Since Richard Nixon, with his 5 o’clock shadow, lost the presidency to a young, tanned and handsome John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential debate, the modern media have helped shape politics in this nation for better and for worse.

The media in all its forms plays a vital role in this nation. The most important role is one of watchdog to guard the nation’s values from corrupt politicians and government workers who would hide their actions from the public. Without a strong press, well-functioning democracy is not possible. Truth must rise to the surface. That will not happen unless there is an outlet for that information.

The News Tribune’s incisive investigative articles on State Auditor Troy Kelley and Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist’s office are two examples where the press plays its role well as guardian of the public good.

According to the book, “American Government: A Complete Coursebook,” media plays two different roles: to influence public opinion and, at the same time, to shape the candidates’ and government officials’ behavior. Politicians are greatly affected by what is said about them and change their actions accordingly. This media influence weakens the power of political parties in the process.

An example of this is when the Republican presidential candidates respond to criticism of statements they make. Candidate behavior is shaped by those comments. By the media asking probing questions, they influence public opinion.

One good example is how media attention over the Benghazi attack and Hilary Clinton’s private email server have forced her to find ways to deal with damage control, rather than do other things that might help her campaign with voters in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Campaigns know this and use the media to get their messages to the voting public. They center their meetings and photo opportunities with the media in mind. This creates the problem that personal appearance can trump experience, ideas and character.

Is this a good thing? That depends. The media’s coverage definitely acts as a “fourth branch” of government. The media keeps Congress, the President and even the Supreme Court on edge about their decisions and rulings.

Press coverage of Supreme Court decisions has definitely affected Chief Justice Roberts’ rulings over “Obamacare.” Roberts altered his behavior because he is concerned about how his court will look to history.

The problem then arises, who “checks” the media? Paradoxically, while the Republican presidential candidates have made attacking liberal media bias one of their campaign “talking points,” they also do not criticize the conservative media bias found on Fox with its political coverage.

As a retired political science teacher told me recently, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network’s chief political goal seems to be to get Republicans elected. I have found people citing Fox News political comments as gospel. Of course, the liberal MSNBC does the same thing for the political left.

Media’s job is to act as watchdog, bringing corruption and malpractice to light. In the process they both report and influence public perceptions and often set the political agenda. Our job as citizens and voters is to remember that lesson we learned in our high school social studies classes to know how to separate fact from opinion in the media. American voters are the fifth branch of government who need to check all the first four branches.


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