Dan Balz is a journalist at The Washington Post newspaper, where he has served as a correspondent covering US politics since 1978. This week he delivered an address at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York on the current Presidential election campaign and news coverage of the contest. The following are excerpts from his speech:
“This election is not only the most exciting but also the most consequential in a generation. It may be the most important since 1968, when a country convulsed by an unpopular war, experienced a traumatic election year that included two assassinations. That election marked the beginning of a conservative era that has lasted almost four decades. Certainly it is the most important election since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency and engineered a radical break from the policies of the New Deal and the Great Society that had governed American since the Great Depression.
“This election reminds us of something that has too often been ignored: That Washington matters. That government matters. Most of all, that who wins the White House matters. As we have seen over the past eight years, the choice of a president affects the way America projects its power around the world and how the world sees us. It affects who gets health care and at what price. It affects who gets taxed and at what rates. It affects the distribution of wealth in a society where income inequality continues to grow. It affects how we educate children and how we care for older Americans. It affects what this nation does to combat global climate change and therefore the world your children and your grandchildren will inherit.”
While stating that he has enjoyed every minute of his career as journalist reporting on politics, Mr. Balz did express some concerns about today’s political coverage:
“My first concern is that we talk more and more about less and less. We seize on trivial developments rather than big ideas. We obsess over process and but not over policy…We spend too much time speculating about the future and not enough examining and understanding the present and the past. We write for one another and talk too much to one another. In other words, we are in danger of reducing to an insider’s game the most important set of decisions people are making about the future of our country.
“My second concern is that we do less reporting than we used to do. We engage in non-stop commentary, sometimes without the information to make the discussion informative. Harold Ross of the New Yorker told Janet Flanner when he sent her off to Paris in the 1920s: “Don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what they think.” That is still useful advice for anyone covering politics in 2008. Political reporting should begin with reporting.
“These are legitimate issues for all of us to debate about the state of journalism, but I am not pessimistic. Not with the story we are witnessing. As I said at the beginning, this election represents an awakening, not only among the millions and millions of people who have turned out to vote this year; for those in the news business, it has been a reawakening to the central role that journalism plays in the advancement of democracy. None of us should be pessimistic about journalism itself. In whatever form and however it is delivered, the work of journalists remains crucial to a healthy and functioning democracy.”
Readers interested in following VOA’s coverage of Campaign ’08 can go to our main website’s special election page and to our VOA Election Blog.