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Can the media hold politicians accountable?


Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton, Center on Representative Government

If you watched Donald Trump’s recent press conference, you may have overlooked a telling and worrisome moment. A CNN reporter tried to ask the president-elect about the extent of his ties to Russian officials. “No! Not you. No! Your organization is terrible,” responded Mr. Trump, and moved on to the next question.
The fact that a politician would seek to sidestep an uncomfortable question isn’t unusual. What should cause concern is what happened next: Nothing. The press corps moved on, without protesting or taking up CNN’s line of questioning and pushing for an answer.
Why do I find this disquieting? Because journalists play a crucial role in our representative democracy’s health. Citizens cannot act responsibly if they’re kept in the dark about public affairs. And it’s the media’s role to make sure that does not happen.

Its performance in recent years, however, has not been reassuring. Before the election, how much were you reading or seeing about the depth and intensity of the frustrations in large swaths of the country that enabled Mr. Trump’s victory? Sure, there’s plenty of news coverage of politics. But it’s just that—coverage of politics, polls, personalities, and campaigns, and much less on the substance of policy issues or what’s at stake for the country as they’re debated.

At the same time, politicians have become adept at manipulating the media. President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump have held very few open news conferences. We are losing important ways and means of holding politicians accountable.
Nor are citizens helping. In the modern media universe, they seek the media that confirms their views and get along with only the information they want to believe.

This is worrisome. But even worse would be a press that doesn’t push on regardless. I want to see media coverage of public affairs that’s dogged, skeptical and aggressive, that investigates actions of government and politicians, that checks facts, calls candidates and office-holders to account, and flags misstatements, half-truths, and outright lies. I want the media to be very tough on politicians and candidates and not let them get away with the evasions and manipulations they find increasingly easy to practice.
Democracy works only with accountability and is strengthened by strict accountability of elected and appointed officials to the people of the country. Without citizens insisting on it and the media demanding it, our system of representative government is in peril.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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