Our national elites reveal an almost universal cowardice in the face of press opinion and public demands. They speak of the press contemptuously in private. They struggle mightily to evade or manipulate the press and its rules. But it is amazingly infrequent for them to subject offending journalists to complaint, criticism, and public challenge.
Journalists of course bear the moral responsibility for whether their stories are fair or unfair. But officials and other people with an active role in political life have a responsibility of their own, which is to fight back. Nor are they so helpless or without resources as they usually claim. They often control journalists' ease of access to information. They can resolve to let nothing pass with a hopeless sigh. They can put their complaints on the record. They can pursue reporters who have been in error. They can write, phone, and meet with editors. They can make sure others involved in a public issue know where a story was reported badly. None of these techniques works even most of the time. But many people doing many of these things frequently would amount to a small revolution.
This is a job that cannot be done by traditional press criticism, with its constant general laments over the nature of a journalistic form that is highly unlikely to get much better than it is now. Moreover, even the separate problem of press power in politics cannot be successfully addressed through appeals to journalistic high-mindedness. People in this country's public life cannot reasonably expect the press to curb its own influence in order to look out for them. They are going to have to learn to defend themselves.