- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2005

In “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect,” authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel remind us that the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Journalism is critical for communities, citizenship and democracy, the authors write. Societies seeking to suppress freedom first suppress the press.

But when large corporations own news organizations and use the news to cynically promote products, engage in lobbying or bend the rules regarding advertising to boost profits, are citizens losing the access to the independent information that makes it possible for us to govern ourselves?

The authors, who are members of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists, ask: Does the press celebrate capitalism at any cost, while discouraging participation in public life?

This critical question came to mind Sunday as I channel-surfed, looking for a live broadcast of the Virginia gubernatorial debate at the watershed of this defining election. If you live in Northern Virginia and you cannot afford or cannot abide cable, you were out of luck. The local over-the-air stations showed their regular programming.

Not even the public television station carried the only televised debate between Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, and former Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a Republican, which began promptly at 7 p.m. in Richmond.

One D.C. station replayed the debate at midnight; another thought it was important enough to replay at 2 a.m. Another didn’t bother.

Lest we forget, radio and television broadcast airwaves are public property, and sometimes profits should be set aside to conduct the public’s business. While it is more profitable for television stations to air anesthetizing programming that generates more advertising or sponsorship revenue, it is of no value to the community to promote uninformed voters. Two earlier debates were not even broadcast statewide.

With its vast and direct influence on public opinion, journalism cannot be ruled solely by profits and special interests. In June 2000, Pope John Paul II said journalists are entrusted with a sacred mission — a mission that must be carried out for the good of all.

It’s a bankrupt excuse for local broadcasters to claim that the Virginia debate was too costly and only of parochial interest. Mr. Kaine rightly said the debate’s fundamental question was: Who can Virginians trust to lead the commonwealth forward?

Substitute country for commonwealth.

This hotly contested gubernatorial race is being watched closely as a barometer of upcoming national and statewide elections. This is why both parties are pumping big bucks and bringing big names into the Old Dominion.

This election could be the first indication that Republican problems on the national level are trickling down to disenchanted local voters.

Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to capitalize on their support in the more liberal inner-Beltway communities.

Sunday’s debate could be seen live in every household in the Old Dominion except in Northern Virginia.

Even though Northern Virginia voters could cast the determining votes in this neck-and-neck race, how many of them stayed awake past midnight to catch the taped version?

Transportation is one of the major issues Mr. Kaine and Mr. Kilgore debated. Do you know which one likely will raise taxes to pay for new roads? Which one likely will ask you to vote to raise your taxes to pay for the wish list of road projects he proposes? Which one promises to eliminate the car tax?

Most people get their news from local television, a medium that largely ignores the process of governing; only 47 percent read newspapers, according to research.

What about broadcasting’s responsibility to the public? Technology and information companies are subsuming journalism. The threat is no longer simply from government censorship, Mr. Kovach and Mr. Rosenstiel warn us.

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