A couple of recent documentaries raised some critical questions about the importance – and willingness or capability – of the media’s role as the impartial fourth estate.

A few weeks ago, PBS’s Frontline presented a cogent report on how the mainstream American media essentially gave the Bush administration a free pass during the lead-up to the Iraq war. Facing strong pressure by Congress and seemingly unstoppable momentum towards war – fueled deftly by the Bush team – few if any prominent journalists questioned the conventional wisdom or conducted the muckracking that is required for solid, impartial journalism. Those that did were shunned and/or relegated to the back pages. This despite the fact that there were large holes in much of the evidence – if anybody bothered to look. In hindsight, of course, we’ve learned that the arguments for war turned out to be largely paper tigers. Call that one a big whiff for the mainstream media (who join the CIA, the Bush team and the Pentagon on the “Great Blunders of History” club.)

More recently, we saw a similar dynamic in the polemic around global warming. In this case, the Bush team – and several popular journalists and members of Congress – are fighting, in the face of overwhelming evidence and intense criticism, the idea that global warming is a crisis that demands immediate attention. Notwithstanding your views on the issue – or the dubious tactics of the “just say no” Bush team, which are reminisent of the tobacco industry denials of the past two decades – what is striking is the virulent criticism of anybody who would dare to contradict the popular views on global warming.

Whatever the issue, it’s critical that major news outlets question and investigate, that they reach beyond the usual Belt Way pundits, that they take a stand even when their perspective is not popular with large segments of the population (or the Bush adminstration!) Even with the advent of citizen journalists, 24-hour global news coverage and the massive accessibility of information online, journalists need to serve as an impartial source of news that can stand the shifting winds of popular opinion. This is particularly true of bellweather outlets like the New York Times and CNN. Is this realistic in an age where media companies are cutting to the bone and coverage is becoming more partisan by the minute? I may be an idealist, but I believe it is.

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