Name a national news organization that commands the respect of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Can't do it? Neither can I, but as the head of The Media Institute and as a citizen, I wish I could.
At a time when there is no governmental institution in America—and scarcely any institution of any kind—that is not the subject of contempt or contention, the news media have a rare opportunity right now to play a meaningful and unifying role, and in the process to do wonders for their own flagging fortunes. But it's not happening.
The United States today is fairly seething with fear and anger. It is no overstatement to say that many people in this country, left and right, hate some of their fellow Americans—a state of mind that will only be exacerbated as the presidential campaign yields a winner, and as the financial crisis takes its inevitable toll.
A few years ago I used to say jokingly that I didn't think the country was up for any more foreign wars, but that I thought there might be an appetite for a good civil war. I don't think it's funny anymore.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong, and a lot that is right, with opinion journalism. But when, as now, people in large numbers are fearful about the future and questioning what's best for themselves and for the country, it is as ominous as it is lamentable that we don't have at least a few national news organizations that are trusted, for their rigorous commitment to thoroughness and objectivity, by people of different political persuasions.
There is no need to define objectivity with mathematical precision; two parts of this to two parts of that. Neither is there any suggestion that objectivity means pleasing everyone, even some of the time. There are, after all, some people—like Marxists on the left and fascists on the right—whose views can't be reconciled with any strain of objectivity.
But the larger point survives, and is all the more dolorous for those of us whose careers are linked with these organizations: the fact that this glaring void exists at the same time that the news media are facing a difficult present and a parlous future.
At what better time, and in what better way, could the legacy media demonstrate their continuing and essential value to this country than by recommitting themselves, at this very moment, to a journalistic standard that strictly adheres to objectivity in the gathering and reporting of the news?