As Washington grinds to a halt, the political media freezes with it in time. And therein this rare moment of stillness journalists must come to heads with one question — how did we let this happen?
Dan Froomkin attributes the government shutdown to "a failure of journalism." From Al Jazeera America, he writes that American journalists failed to uphold their crucial role in a democracy — to inform and "help create a more informed electorate" — when they prioritized a narrative of die hard neutrality over reporting what was actually happening.
In a bitterly, selfishly partisan government, taking on a "balanced" and "neutral" stance of reporting misleads the electorate and enables extreme political acts. When the press does not hold politicians and leaders accountable, a single political party held hostage by its own "ideological zealots" breaks an entire nation.
Tea Party Republicans, we're looking at you.
Neither state-controlled nor answerable to any government body, American media enjoys freedom of press — a right only 36% of the world's nations have. Journalists hold immense authority in policing the powerful and creating positive change. It is ridiculous that American journalists do not understand or appreciate their power.
I have personally witnessed a state lose its freedom of press. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, growing up on the island when it was still a relatively free society. As a British colony for over 150 years, Hong Kong media flourished with press freedoms preserved in its de facto constitution, the Basic Law.
But since Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the flow of information and opinion has slowly but surely ebbed away, courtesy of the decision-making Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
Because Hong Kong is not a multi-party system the governing party, or the Communist Party, is now the lone source for all government activity. Carefully prepared press materials are the only available information, as are closed-door briefings with no audio or video recording allowed — these are the news sources available to Hong Kong journalists.
This was made all the more apparent in my recent visit to Hong Kong this summer. Bo Xilai, a Communist Party "princeling" embroiled in a political scandal involving murder and corruption, was sentenced to life in prison for bribe taking, embezzlement, and abuse of power. All Hong Kong news channels replayed the same clip of Xilai over and over, day and night. He looked calm, almost bemused, as the judge announced his severe lifelong verdict.
However, the English-language South China Morning Post, one of the more liberal Hong Kong papers (albeit not for long), reported a different story. According to SCMP, Xilai "erupted in anger" and was "forcibly taken away by the court's guards." Later, I learned that the government now controls which soundbites are used on news channels.
In a series of surveys conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, 58.4% of journalists who responded felt press freedom had been eroded since the 1997 handover. In 2005, that number jumped to nearly 87%.
Freedom House, an NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, released their annual findings on global press freedom in 2009 and saw Hong Kong lose its "Free" status.
Journalists are and should be the first line of defense against the faction of individuals who are granted power by the people, and whose power should only be used to benefit the people. When the government takes away freedom of press, as the Communist Party of China is taking away from Hong Kong, a disastrous cascade of events is likely to follow and the loss of freedom of thought is the ultimate consequence.
That is not the case in America. The government is not eroding press freedom — the media is.
There is nothing quite as vital to a democracy as having a daring press that is not afraid to be critical or skeptical of the powerful. "Balanced" and "neutral" reporting goes out the door when the government is severely asymmetrical. "By not calling what it is," as Froomkin writes, and refusing to ask tough questions and refusing to take sides in a highly partisan issue, reporters fail to inform the electorate political extremism of the most harmful kind.
It is time for the American press to gain back journalistic integrity and to fully understand the responsibility before them. Press freedoms should not be repressed, but neither should those who have it neglect it. Criticize and be skeptical — not in accordance with where you may stand on the political spectrum, but where you stand as a part of a democracy.