Powers of the Press

Ruminations on the clout and role of the Fourth Estate. by Timothy B. Clark

In my travels on the job, I've often found that readers of our magazine give its title a third word: "The Government Executive." I've had a soft spot for the superfluous "The," thinking it connotes the idea that Government Executive carries weight and speaks with the voice of authority.

It's nice to be appreciated and respected. It's also important to have in mind the limits of what we do. Oftentimes, people ascribe to us in the press both powers and motivations we don't have. Perhaps that's not surprising, given growing confusion about the role of the media in our country, what with the rise of blogs and news outlets that promote certain points of view.

Members of Congress and executives of big companies, for example, say they are not as powerful as the media they generally dislike. President Bush has been attacking the media for writing about anti-terrorism data mining by executive branch agencies. The media do not write the laws or set policies, but we do have the power to choose topics to consider, to frame issues and to develop the context of the stories we are telling, all of which can have a bearing on how the people and institutions we cover feel they've been treated.

People say the press promotes its own agenda, and the mainstream media often are characterized as leaning to the left. But I don't believe that, and I know that our magazine does not lean one way or another. We practice journalism, we tell stories, and we make every effort to be thorough and fair, interesting, and even amusing at times. If we have a bias, it is in favor of the civil service so often maligned by politicians and other media.

People say the press focuses on bad news. There's some truth to that. Editors long have taken pride in exposing wrongs such as yesteryear's devastating discrimination against blacks in the South and today's corruption in the corporate boardroom. Poverty, gridlock, educational deficiencies-these problems afflict our citizens and so are worthy of attention. But glad tidings also make the news, especially when those seem out of the ordinary: The New York Times' front page recently reported that more children are going to school in Baghdad, for instance.

Sensationalism and scary stories meant "to sell newspapers" also are among the media's sins, critics say. Well, it's a competitive trade and even in serious newspapers (and others whose headlines might read: "Twelve Senators Are Space Aliens"), people want to get the big story, and get it first.

Although Government Executive's readership is centered in the civil service, we don't sugarcoat our stories of agencies' problems. We tell it like it is. In this issue, you don't have to read far between the lines in David Perera's story on the governmentwide ID card initiative to see that it has all the makings of an expensive fiasco. We also write about what's going right, offering readers opportunities to learn from their peers. Beth Dickey's story about the Federal Aviation Administration's noteworthy improvement in its financial management is one example.

So for now, gentle readers, that's the news.

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