When I look at news coverage after a State of the Union address, I'm often left wondering why media outlets have such difficulty adhering to a central principle of our country's democratic aspirations — the separation of press and state.
The idea may appear to be simple and clear cut: The press must remain independent of the government in order to serve as a watchdog that challenges state power. But the separation is routinely more apparent than real.
Thomas Jefferson could be derisive toward the press of his day. "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper," he wrote in a letter to John Norvell in 1807. That same year, President Jefferson declared: "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them: inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehood and errors."
But whatever the merits of such scathing critiques, Jefferson was far more profound when he wrote in 1786: "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
The limits on today's media are not flagrant. But they are insidious. The U.S. government has teamed up with unprecedented concentrations of capital to wield enormous power in tandem with the largest media outlets in the country.
Separation of press and state is far more than a quaint notion or a dusty concept to be read between the lines of the First Amendment. It is an essential space for oxygen in the democratic process. For the press to be deferential to government is akin to the Congress being deferential to the Executive Branch.
Many journalists are ambivalent about their profession's habitual reverence for state power — reverence that is quite compatible with the usual media sniping at politicians and criticizing of partisan maneuvers.
Reporters and pundits may get tough on individual leaders, but the melding of press and state becomes painfully obvious — especially when the flag goes up and the troops go into battle.
Days after Baghdad fell in the spring of 2003, Dan Rather — then the top CBS News anchor — went on CNN's "Larry King Live" and emphasized his professional allegiance. "Look, I'm an American," Rather said. "I never tried to kid anybody that I'm some internationalist or something. And when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of 'win' may be. Now, I can't and don't argue that that is coverage without a prejudice. About that I am prejudiced."
But on-the-job religious or patriotic faith is a hazard to the integrity of news media. At least in theory, journalists are supposed to follow the truth wherever it leads — thus helping the public to understand on the basis of facts and insights rather than myths and delusions. In practice, automatic faith badly skews the process.
Who can doubt that the failure to separate press and state led to the fawning, craven, opportunistic U.S. media coverage of top government policy-makers in Washington that smoothed the way for the invasion of Iraq? If we want to grasp the consequences of enmeshing the press and the state, we can gauge it in the carnage that continues to make Iraq a slaughterhouse for many Americans and many more Iraqis.
News analysis and commentaries have been as tough on President Bush in recent months as they were obsequious when he was riding high in the polls. But the ebb and flow of a president's political standing and media fortunes are not necessarily indicators of a vigorous press.
The cheers that echo through the House chamber during a State of the Union address may strike us as antiquated and excessive. But they're trivial compared to the concessions that media outlets constantly make toward the government's massive power to override humanistic values at home and abroad.
Our society should implement a permanent divorce between press and state. There should be no intimacy between those who wield state power and those who claim to engage in what Thomas Jefferson called the freedom upon which "our liberty depends."
Norman Solomon's latest book, "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death," is now available in paperback. To find out more about Norman Solomon and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.