Tuesday Lunch: Why an Honest Arbiter Is Important

July 2, 2012

If you’ve ever wondered where the line is between extreme and reasonable in the Indiana political discussion this gubernatorial election is going to draw it for you. Don’t expect, though, to learn much about the issues themselves.

We’ve been writing lately about the importance of an independent mass media as an honest arbiter of the public discussion, the kind envisioned by the Founders as they searched for ways to keep raw democracy within constitutional bounds.

On the chance you haven’t noticed, we no longer have such an arbiter.

The great Indiana dailies, all of them corporately managed, cover even the most critical issues as if they were sporting events, both sides being treated as morally and factually equal.

That may sound perfectly fair to an adolescent journalist but adults should know that it creates only opportunity for those who would confuse the discussion.

A recent article by the Indianapolis Star’s chief political writer accepted without challenge a political operative’s description of a policy guide as “extreme.” The position of the Star writer, as explained to us by her publisher, was that she herself did not say it, her source did.

Well, OK, but there was a time when editors and reporters were restrained from characterization. By that it was meant if an article characterized a position or a personality it was expected to include for the reader’s consideration material that supported the characterization. Otherwise, it is mere name-calling, mere pejorative.

Only the most diligent reader would have been able to follow the citations in the Star article to a political web site. There he would have found these examples of “extreme” positions in the guide:

We know a lot about the policy guide because this foundation was its publisher, and if the Star writer had asked us to respond to its characterization as “extreme” we would have left that judgment open.

For the articles addressed what the authors, all of them experts and some with doctorates, thought to be extreme political, economic and societal problems. And it is at least arguable that many of their proposed solutions, extreme or not, would have improved the situation of Indiana citizens.

Following that line, the Star could have continued  a useful discussion instead of becoming party to a round of poll-tested name-calling. But it did not, nor did it respond to our request for an off-the-record apology.

The Star once was a statewide leader of opinion. Indeed, when our political guide, “Indiana Mandate,” was published, its lead editorial had this to say:

The pocket-sized 150-page book contains tough iconoclastic and highly informative writing by J. Patrick Rooney, Dr. Chad J. Davis, law Professor Douglas W. Kmiec of Notre Dame and other experts who discuss the press, leadership, the major parties, term limitation, regulation, abortion, lobbying, bureaucracy, the litigation explosion, current policies on taxation, the state budget, education, conservation, welfare, government-run versus privatized services, employment, private property, special interests and other vital topics.  . . . Indiana Mandate is likely to make a lot of people angry. It is certain to make a lot of people think, which is the point. That can spark debate which, if things go well, can produce healthy change.

That was the afternoon edition of May 14, 1992, under the headline, “Indiana: Escape Route.” Yes, the issues unresolved in this gubernatorial election are 20 years old.

Now that’s extreme — extremely discouraging as a reflection of those political parties and media handling the public discussion.

We said earlier that Indiana is at the point where any candidate or issue can be knocked out of consideration with the simplest of lies. There will be no effective challenge of the most blatant misinformation even when the facts are readily available.

That should concern those in Indiana who fund righteous political campaigns. It is their money, after all, that is being finessed.

Perhaps they are not so much unconcerned as wary of getting involved in something as complex, time-consuming and risky as an information system.

But there is no longer a choice. If lies stand, liberty will fall. That is too great a price to pay. — tcl


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