As the Bush administration enters its final year in office, there seems to be a perfect storm of events gathering: saber rattling regarding Iran, national healthcare, global warming, the endless war in Iraq (projected to cost more than $2 trillion over the next ten years), a critical presidential election on the horizon, and Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons, suddenly seems far more dangerous and volatile than Iran or Iraq.




We are in need of a public debate on these issues, a national discourse initiated and sustained by a robust press.




Electronic network news bureaus across the country, as well as print, have been engaged in a pitched battle with owners and shareholders to maintain independent and fully staffed newsrooms, dedicated to gathering and reporting hard news. They've been losing, for a number of reasons.




Clearly, the White House was the beneficiary of this trend in the run-up to the Iraq war and in the months that followed the invasion. The result was that few journalists challenged the administration's carefully crafted web of justifications, beginning with WMDs.




Bill Moyers, in PBS' "Bill Moyers Journal," asked a seminal question: why did seasoned reporters (electronic and print), after 9/11, seem to abandon the essential role played by a free press?




Moyers described a Bush press conference on March 6, 2003, two weeks before America invaded Iraq. During the Q/A, the president linked Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and Al-Qaeda a dozen times. That linkage persisted for months, to the point that a majority of Americans believed that Iraq was involved in 9/11. It was only after Iraq was declared by the President as "Mission Accomplished," and 9/11 began to recede, that the real story emerged, investigated by a still timid media.




And it is only in the last year or two that the efficacy of the war in all its permutations has been robustly questioned.




But even with 9/11 passing into history, and the foibles and scandals of the current administration ever more apparent, good, aggressive news reporting and in-depth news analyses continues to be in jeopardy. And it's not because the media is distracted or even duped. It's something else.




What has happened over the last decade or so is that the term "hard news" has been eclipsed by what can be called news-lite, a change predicated on the belief by major electronic news gathering organizations that in order to capture serious market share, news must entertain as well as inform. In other words, stories are offered up, especially by electronic media, that appear to be "news" &

reported by the same anchors that report hard news &

when in reality they are, at best, ersatz news with all the garnishes, presented as if they should be taken seriously.




Viewed another way, news bureaus have taken human interest stories, blended them with stories about celebrities, and moved said stories from the back page to the front page, so to speak. Network news honchos, at some point, discovered that America is a celebrity obsessed culture and so stories about famous people in free fall or enmeshed in scandal have been given ever increasing time on air and in print, no longer relegated to tabloid shows or magazines.




Recall the tale of Anna Nicole Smith, a non-news story about a marginal celebrity, given blanket coverage by major news outlets. Microphone-wielding reporters stood outside the courthouse in Florida and the Bahamas with all the seriousness of journalists covering a nuclear nonproliferation conference.




Over the past several weeks we have been treated to a veritable buffet of news stories, offered up during prime time, given in-depth coverage. Clearly, when it comes to O.J. Simpson, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas; rather, his seamy exploits are given endless air time, with a cast of unsavory characters being interrogated by anchors and, of course, Larry King. With Simpson's release from jail, and his subsequent return to Florida, attention turned to Britney Spears and her battle for custody of her children. The network dissections by guest attorneys, friends, and bodyguards were endless. None of these stories are newsworthy; yet all are covered as if they were.




An example of news-lite occurred on NBC's Today Show. Traditionally, the first hour of the broadcast is devoted to "hard news." Yet, a national reporter was asked to cover then undeclared Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson's "trophy wife," wondering if having a young wife (she's barely 40, Thompson is in his 60s) might hurt his chances with the voters. It was a dumbed down story, but not atypical for a major news organization which has been on a news-lite trajectory for some time.




Most recently, the story of Ellen DeGeneres weeping openly on her daily talk show about a dog that was adopted by her, given to a friend's family, then taken back by the adoption agency was covered in great detail on cable and network news. Anchor Brian Williams, of NBC Nightly News, described Degeneres' on-air "meltdown" in some detail, the story accompanied by pictures of the small pooch just over his shoulder.




Many of the hard news stories &

Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Darfur, health insurance, Katrina aftermath, our declining inner city schools, ad infinitum &

are too often pushed to the curb to make room for celebrity coverage or specious stories that have little substance yet titillate bordering on the prurient. Too often, victims are rounded up and interviewed, mere hours after a terrible event, often involving loss of a family member, and interrogated by an anchor turned grief counselor, with millions watching. Not only does it seem exploitive, but a stunning violation of privacy and to what end? Apparently people will appear on television in moments of great distress and speak about experiences most personal. That doesn't mean it is news and it doesn't mean that networks must conduct such invasive interviews.




The stakes are high, domestically and internationally, the stories ever more complex. We need good and informative news. The fourth estate has an essential and critical role to play, if only it wouldn't yield.