Overcoming Cynicism Amidst Ethical Lapses in American Government and the News Business

By Wilson, Clint C., II | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Overcoming Cynicism Amidst Ethical Lapses in American Government and the News Business


Wilson, Clint C., II, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


This paper examines how the free press theories espoused by John Milton and Thomas Jefferson have been undermined not only by ethical lapses in American government but also by the evolution of news media organizations into corporate entities that pursue financial profit at the expense of their social responsibility to serve public interests.

The resulting loss of citizen trust in both their government and news media institutions has led to cynicism and hampered the ability of citizens to make informed judgments as participants in their democracy. Although news media have been traditionally expected to serve as watchdogs over government as the so-called "fourth estate" in the political checks and balances system in the United States, examples of ethical breaches by journalists and government entities are cited.

Criteria are posited for effectively meeting the public affairs communications needs in a democratic society as well as the reasons corporate American media have fallen short. Public opinion research data suggests that Americans are turning to their publicly funded broadcasting system, established 40 years ago, as a trustworthy source of news and analysis that meets the criteria of socially responsible journalism and public discourse.

Overcoming Cynicism Amidst Ethical Lapses In American Government and The News Business

When Harvey E. Johnson stepped before a battery of microphones in October of 2007 all outward appearances suggested that the Deputy Director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was about to begin a routine press conference concerning the agency's response to a series of deadly wildfires then raging across southern California. Johnson's answers to the various questions posed to him painted an impressive scenario that suggested his agency had responded rapidly and efficiently to the largest American disaster since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the gulf coast states in 2005.

Within a few hours, however, the event was exposed as a staged fabrication in which the assembled "journalists" asking non-penetrating questions were actually FEMA employees. Moreover, it was discovered that the "press conference" had been called only 15 minutes prior to its starting time, thus giving credentialed newspersons insufficient time to attend. Aside from C-SPAN, a public television operation, and a few other outlets that happened to be nearby, the room was devoid of press corps members. Johnson, however, only acknowledged queries from FEMA personnel posing as independent journalists. The major broadcast, cable and newspaper reporters had been given a telephone line over which they could call and listen in on the proceedings, but without ability to ask questions of their own. Although White House spokesmen later apologized, the FEMA incident is recognized as being among the most blatant ethics violations committed by a United States government agency in recent history.

The administration of President George W. Bush has been criticized for various ethical breaches, perhaps none more so than its controversial justification for invading Iraq based on dubious evidence of Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, Mr. Bush has registered some of the lowest job approval ratings in public opinion polls ever recorded among U.S. presidents. One month prior to FEMA's fake press conference the Gallup poll reported that Americans had expressed "less trust in the federal government than at any point in the past decade." (1) The litany of scandals over the years involving members of the U.S. Congress are legion and run the gamut from bribery to kickback schemes and sexual improprieties. There is little mystery, therefore, as to why public opinion of that legislative body ranks even lower than for those working in the executive branch of government. A poll by Congress Watch on Ethics in Government in 2006 found that 83 % of American respondents believed corruption in Congress to be a "serious problem. …

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