At the major outlets that shape public discussion – The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the big three network news shows, say – the interesting issue may not be “objectivity,” but the simple fact that picking which stories to lead with or put on page 1 is an exercise of enormous and unaccountable power. It may not feel this way to the editors and producers who make these judgments, since they’re simply “putting out the paper” or “putting on the show.” Still, it’s hard to imagine a set of daily decisions that have more influence on the quality and content of public life.
The question is how to make the exercise of this power more accountable or responsible. One answer might be for editors and producers to explain to audiences at regular intervals what went into their news judgment. Imagine if the Times or the Post assigned a reporter to “cover” their internal page one meetings, and then produce a piece for Sunday that detailed the considerations that went into the make-up of page one that week – along with any doubts, second thoughts, conflicts, etc. A note from the editor or similar report would also suffice, so long as the effect was the same: to ‘fess up to what every reader already knows – that the press is not just reporting the news, but choosing what is news. By demystifying this process, such an effort would take the press off one of its high horses and treat citizens as adults. I’d also bet it would be a hit with readers. And it would set an example. If a few top outlets made something like this a regular practice, does anyone doubt it would have a ripple effect? Conversely, if none were willing routinely to explain and defend their news judgments, it would suggest how little difference there is between the way media heavies and top political officials prefer to exercise power – in secret.