The drawn out contest to determine the next President of the USA is an extraordinary process. I find some components highly laudable, and some of them less than ideal. One of the problems with such a very long process is the need for the media (and the general public to some extent) to constantly try to find new angles and stories about the campaign. This could be seen as adding to public scrutiny, which is a good thing, but it can also lead to a desire to try to find ‘killer blows’, ‘smoking guns’ and ‘gotcha moments’, where one incident alters the direction or outcome of a campaign.
There’s an example of this in the USA at the moment, where a story by the New York Times about the Republican Party’s nominee for President, John McCain, has become more of a story than the story itself. This report on the ABC website notes that the New York Times’ Ombudsman has strongly criticised the paper’s report.
The main thing I find laudable about this is the fact that the New York Times has an ombudsman – or the Public Editor, as the newspaper calls him. The newspaper describes the role as being “the readers’ representative. He responds to complaints and comments from the public and monitors the paper’s journalistic practices”, publishing his views in the paper at least twice a month.
It would be good to see a few Australian media outlets putting a similar position in place, particular given there are so few independent checks and balances on the media in this country. The Australian Press Council certainly falls well short of the mark, other than providing a good case study for anyone who wants to demonstrate that self-regulation doesn’t always work. The Press Council’s aims are “to help preserve the traditional freedom of the press within Australia and ensure that the free press acts responsibly and ethically.” They may do OK on the first of those aims, but I can’t say I’ve seen much evidence of a beneficial impact on the second.