A central aspect of the art of politics in Washington is getting information to the American people. Determining what the White House, Congress and the people will focus on — and, just as important, what the content of debate will be — preoccupies politicians at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and legions of lobbyists, pundits, strategists and consultants.

One major institution looms large in all these people’s calculations: the national media. Not only has it historically played a vital role in informing the people and focusing their attention on issues that need addressing, but also it has a considerable impact on how we talk about them. What we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio, and see on television or online helps to shape how public policy gets discussed.

The crosscurrents of reasoned discourse and angry outbursts that have characterized much of the debate on health care reform are a perfect illustration of how coverage by the mainstream media, the exhortations of talk radio hosts, and extreme theories spread through the blogosphere all combine to influence the dialogue of democracy.

You can find the crucial role that an independent media plays in a democracy in any basic journalism text. Unlike partisan commentators and bloggers, its first obligation is to the truth: to provide the basic information that a self-governing people relies on to make discerning judgments. This means that journalists have a heavy responsibility to check the facts and be accurate, since their fundamental role is to foster understanding of issues, players and government, not to stoke contempt or praise for them.

The press helps make representative democracy work. If it does its job, it maintains a healthy skepticism of those in power — and of those who seek to defeat them at the ballot box. It should perform vital oversight not only of government, but also of the special interests that seek to influence it. It should provide a forum for public dialogue. It should report comprehensively on issues in a manner that does not reduce them to simple sound bites. And it should strive to help readers, listeners and viewers understand what is significant and what is not.

Without a robust, independent and professionally competent media helping Americans understand our government and politics, and giving them the tools to make good judgments about them, our democracy will fail.

This historic role of the press is under siege today. In part, of course, it’s being undermined by the sorry financial state that many newspapers and mainstream news programs find themselves in. But it is also being compromised by the blurring that has taken place in recent years between news and opinion, and, more destructively, between news and entertainment.

The media today is more anxious to comment on the news than it is to cover and report it. Hard news and reasoned analysis are foundering as the numbers of reporters shrink, Washington bureaus are slashed or abandoned altogether, and the space devoted to the basic informative aspects of journalism gives way to reporting about politics, polls, personalities and conflicts, rather than the substance of issues.

It has reached the point where people attempting to be fair, reasoned and discriminating on many television shows either give up or find themselves in the awkward position of being marginalized. The political center may be alive and well among Americans on the ground, but it is very hard to find on the air — when, for instance, was the last time you saw a program on abortion that wasn’t all about the clash of pro-life and pro-choice advocates, rather than the more subtle views held by many Americans?

Moreover, I am amazed at how much airtime is spent interviewing pundits about their opinions, both informed and ill-informed, and how little time is spent investigating the facts or breaking stories not already covered in the print media.

All of this, of course, concerns both responsible journalists and those they cover. The relationship between decision-makers and the journalists who report on them is symbiotic. Journalists need newsmakers, but they also rely on politicians with a deep understanding of a given issue to help them explain it to the broader public. Likewise, politicians and policy-makers rely on journalists to help build public understanding by reporting in depth on the substance of issues, not just the politics and the personalities.

A world filled with partisan blogs and hyper-bloviating commentators can work to a politician’s advantage, giving him or her the ability to stoke public support by appealing only to the faithful. But the travails besetting journalism today are alarming to those of us who believe that democracy is not simply a matter of mobilizing the masses; it is instead about searching for common ground among competing interests on difficult issues and then painstakingly building support for compromise and reasoned solutions.

All who believe in representative democracy must understand that what’s happening in journalism today has huge consequences for the quality and vitality of our republic.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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