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(HOST) 2004 was a challenging year for the news media, but commentator David Moats thinks that it will continue to play an important role in the democratic process in the year ahead – and beyond.

(MOATS) I know I’m going to sound like an old-timer, but I remember the days when people looked to the news to help halt the horrible misdeeds of government. These days the media are not so much the people’s champion as a whipping boy blamed for what has gone wrong.

I remember scouring the newspapers every morning to find out what the press had been able to dig up about Vietnam or Watergate. It seemed like heroic work.

I also remember a moment in the movie “Gandhi.” Rank upon rank of Indian demonstrators were being clubbed to the ground by British soldiers, and a reporter from the West was on the phone to his paper at home relaying his story of the event. His story gave meaning to their suffering because it allowed the world to know what was going on.

Part of what has soured people on the media in recent years has been the exploitive showmanship of television. There is a difference between what we need to know and the news that feeds our appetite for the bizarre. What we need to know includes what is happening in places like Iraq or the back rooms of Washington. We need to know it so that powerful people don’t get away with lying to us and messing up our world.

The media are called liberal, partly because in the minds of some people, it is less than patriotic to challenge authority. But there is nothing inherently liberal or conservative about bringing out the truth. It was a liberal president who brought us the Vietnam War, and it was the press that helped to bring him down.

It is arguable that Bill Clinton received worse press than George Bush. What is really under way is a struggle for power. Those in power don’t want the press creating problems by exposing the truth, and they have mounted a campaign to intimidate the press.

Fines growing out of the new hysteria about what is called indecency have made the big media corporations nervous. Now reporters for The New York Times and other outlets have been threatened with jail for refusing to name sources. The message is: Watch yourself because we’re playing hardball.

Lately we heard about opposition in Congress to an expensive spy satellite system. That is interesting and important news. For the Bush administration it was cause for an investigation into who was responsible for the leak.

In Eastern Europe one of the telltale signs that democracy has begun to flower has been the appearance of independent news. Ukraine is teetering between democracy and autocracy, and one of the key factors has been the willingness of the media to challenge the government.

The press in the United States is still independent, of course, but that doesn’t prevent the government from trying to instill fear. All of the histrionics and showmanship of TV throw a shadow over the
enterprise. But in the next few years, I think the news business will play a crucial role in shining the light on some troubling stories.

And I still think it’s a heroic role.

This is David Moats from Salisbury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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