Guest Commentary

Two Guest commentary by Lee Hamilton and Douglas Burns


You, too, should care about what’s happening to journalism


By Lee Hamilton

A central aspect of the art of politics in Washington is getting information to the American people. Determining what the White House, Congress and the people will focus on preoccupies politicians at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and legions of lobbyists, pundits, strategists and consultants.

One major institution looms large in all these people’s calculations: the national media. Not only has it historically played a vital role in informing the people and focusing their attention on issues that need addressing, but also it has a considerable impact on how we talk about them.

The crosscurrents of reasoned discourse and angry outbursts that have characterized much of the debate on health care reform are a perfect illustration of how coverage by the mainstream media, the exhortations of talk radio hosts, and extreme theories spread through the blogosphere all combine to influence the dialogue of democracy.

You can find the crucial role that an independent media plays in a democracy in any basic journalism text. Unlike partisan commentators and bloggers, its first obligation is to the truth: to provide the basic information that a self-governing people relies on to make discerning judgments. This means that journalists have a heavy responsibility to check the facts and be accurate, since their fundamental role is to foster understanding of issues, players and government, not to stoke contempt or praise for them.

The press helps make representative democracy work. If it does its job, it maintains a healthy skepticism of those in power — and of those who seek to defeat them at the ballot box. It should perform vital oversight not only of government, but also of the special interests that seek to influence it. It should provide a forum for public dialogue. It should report comprehensively on issues in a manner that does not reduce them to simple sound bites. And it should strive to help readers, listeners and viewers understand what is significant and what is not.

Without a robust, independent and professionally competent media helping Americans understand our government and politics, and giving them the tools to make good judgments about them, our democracy will fail.

This historic role of the press is under siege today. In part, of course, it’s being undermined by the sorry financial state that many newspapers and mainstream news programs find themselves in. But it is also being compromised by the blurring that has taken place in recent years between news and opinion, and more destructively, between news and entertainment.

The media today is more anxious to comment on the news than it is to cover and report it. Hard news and reasoned analysis are floundering as the numbers of reporters shrink, Washington bureaus are slashed or abandoned altogether, and the space devoted to the basic informative aspects of journalism gives way to reporting about politics, polls, personalities and conflicts, rather than the substance of issues.

And what has come to dominate the public’s attention instead? Feisty advocates for a particular point of view, belligerent personalities, and wordsmiths promoted for their cleverness and temerity. Television is a particular culprit here. Many interviewers on television now deem it a virtue to offer an avalanche of opinions and a trickle of facts, to prod for angry shouting matches, to exacerbate differences, and to book guests based on their partisanship, not their knowledge.

It has reached the point where people attempting to be fair, reasoned and discriminating on many television shows either give up or find themselves in the awkward position of being marginalized.

Moreover, I am amazed at how much airtime is spent interviewing pundits about their opinions, both informed and ill-informed, and how little time is spent investigating the facts or breaking stories not already covered in the print media.

All of this, of course, concerns both responsible journalists and those they cover. The relationship between decision-makers and the journalists who report on them is symbiotic. Journalists need newsmakers, but they also rely on politicians with a deep understanding of a given issue to help them explain it to the broader public. Likewise, politicians and policy-makers rely on journalists to help build public understanding by reporting in depth on the substance of issues, not just the politics and the personalities.

A world filled with partisan blogs and hyper-bloviating commentators can work to a politician’s advantage, giving him or her the ability to stoke public support by appealing only to the faithful. But the travails besetting journalism today are alarming to those of us who believe that democracy is not simply a matter of mobilizing the masses; it is instead about searching for common ground among competing interests on difficult issues and then painstakingly building support for compromise and reasoned solutions. CV

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.


Political Mercury

By Douglas Burns


Fong: Republicans can’t ‘sound so angry’
Ivy League-educated son of Chinese immigrant says his biography is key in bid for governor


Christian Fong acknowledges he may not be the best-known road warrior carrying the name of the Cedar Rapids insurance company Aegon.

Master’s champion and golf professional Zach Johnson, whose name tops the first pages of the PGA money lists these days, often sports an Aegon logo. For his part, Fong, a 32-year-old Republican candidate for Iowa governor and Aegon executive, jokes that Johnson isn’t the only one getting the insurance company’s name in print.

“Zach Johnson gets paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to wear the Aegon hat,” Fong quipped. “If every story (on me running for governor) is going to mention Aegon, maybe I should get some sort of sponsorship.”

Fong, a graduate of Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., who went on to earn his master’s in business administration from Dartmouth, has charted an aggressive schedule as a political newcomer with ambitions to hold the keys to Terrace Hill after the 2010 elections.

Fong is in a field of announced Republican gubernatorial hopefuls that is being overshadowed by former Gov. Terry Branstad, who has said he will make public his intentions this month on an intensely speculated resurrection of his political career. A Branstad run as of press time appeared imminent.

But this isn’t stopping Fong, the founder and CEO of Corridor Recovery, a non-profit relief organization. On a recent morning, I caught up with him at the Family Table Restaurant in Denison.

“I’m from western Iowa,” Fong said. “I sometimes laugh. People in eastern Iowa will look at me and say, ‘Boy, you’re so conservative.’ The eastern-Iowa business Republican. There’s a certain stereotype of what that’s going to look like, and I don’t fit the mold. I grew up in western Iowa. I drank the water.”

A son of a Chinese immigrant father and farm girl mother from Nebraska, Fong who has worked intensely with flood recovery in the Cedar Rapids area, is banking that he has attributes his party desperately seeks: intellectual ballast, a record of results in business and public service, and a biography that will allow the GOP to reach beyond its base.

Fong spent his teen-age years in Underwood, where his parents reside today.

He said graduating from a class with a little more than three dozens students gives him an appreciation for the value of small schools. Rural residents, he said, can count him as an advocate.

“I have personal feelings about that because of the education I received,” Fong said.

Electing a 33-year-old governor (that’s how old Fong will be next November) would also be a torch-passing statement to a generation ready to serve, Fong said.

“We struggle as a state,” Fong said. “We’re a graying state, an aging state. That has all sorts of both cultural implications as well as economic implications. We need to keep our young people here in this state.”

He added, “It (Fong’s candidacy) sends a strong message not only to my generation but to the whole nation that Iowa is a place where progressive ideas and progressive people can lead.”

Fong said his campaign also shows the GOP is not as insular as the characterization of it put forward by many detractors — although he acknowledged that the GOP base is not as diverse it could be.

“If you just look at voter records and who shows up at meetings, too often, it’s elderly white people — and nothing against elderly white people,” Fong said.

Fong said his biography will attract more Iowans to the GOP.

“I was on free-and-reduced lunch programs as a kid,” Fong said. “This wasn’t a silver spoon existence, growing up in a rural, poor situation and enjoying the ultimate of success as being an Ivy League-educated businessperson, community leader. It’s the sort of story people want to believe Iowa can still be. We want that for our kids.”

Fong said the Republican Party needs to use more inclusive language and treat people in immigration debates as humans first, not problems.

“We have to be careful to not sound so angry,” Fong said.

This doesn’t mean compromising on principles, he said.

The nation must crack down on flagrant violations of immigration laws, he said. But Fong said the Republican Party can do a better job of celebrating legal immigration.

“First- and second-generation Americans need look no further than my story and my face to realize that they have someone that understands what they’re going through, what they’re families are going through, and what their future can look like,” Fong said. CV


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