The rhetoric of American journalism describes an adversarial fourth estate, a redoubt for professional skeptics who scrutinize authority in the name of the public and help keep the public discourse honest. As long as our newspapers enjoyed quasi-monopolies and the evening newscasts were a national touchstone, the moth-eaten reality of this self-image was easily ignored. But the hard truth is that the press mostly amplifies the agendas of others—the prominent and the powerful—and tends to aggressively assume its adversarial role only when someone or something—a president, a CEO, an institution—is wounded and vulnerable. (Even some of the most important journalistic work of recent years—the exposures of warrant-less wiretaps and CIA ghost prisons—came after the Bush White House had begun its precipitous slide in the polls.)
[...] If ever there were a moment for our press to begin to change this dynamic, to embrace a mission more in keeping with the ideals of public service and an adversarial fourth estate, it is now. America is at a perilous juncture in its history, but one that is ripe with opportunity, too. The mythology of the nation—exceptional, above the taint of history—has been undercut by a terror attack, two botched wars, the reality of torture, a flooded city, a wounded economy, staggering inequality, a shameful health-care system . . . the list is long. It has been undercut, too, by the emerging realities of the twenty-first century: a multipolar world, transglobal problems that no amount of debt-funded escapism can keep at bay, a realization that America must lead, but cannot dictate. America has created systems—legal, political, educational—that have much to admire, but they are not sacrosanct. In short, many of the ideas that we take for granted are not the only good ideas, or necessarily the ones best suited for every set of circumstances. On many fronts, the circumstances are decidedly different from those that allowed this notion of American exceptionalism to persist, fundamentally unchallenged, for so long.
Take a Stand: CJR
[...]dated from some time between the rise of the penny press and the end of the Second World War, we had a very unusual circumstance — and I think especially in the United States — where we had commercial entities producing critical public goods. We had ad-supported newspapers producing accountability journalism.
Now, it’s unusual to have that degree of focus on essentially both missions — both making a profit and producing this kind of public value. But that was the historic circumstance, and it lasted for decades. But it was an accident. There was a set of forces that made that possible. And they weren’t deep truths — the commercial success of newspapers and their linking of that to accountability journalism wasn’t a deep truth about reality. Best Buy was not willing to support the Baghdad bureau because Best Buy cared about news from Baghdad. They just didn’t have any other good choices.