Column: With great hope comes great responsibility

By Gus Bode

In arguably the most quoted line of Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, he mentioned a word that never fails to make children groan.

‘What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,’ he said, eloquently paraphrasing the same thing my mother said to me before we got a puppy.

Americans, not unlike my 7-year-old self, clamor that we can do it; we can be trusted with certain duties; we want and deserve the fruits of these labors.


But responsibility looks like one thing when you’re gazing into big, watery cocker spaniel eyes and quite another when you are staring down the ‘special present’ Sparky just left on the carpet. For all of us, the call of our new president means something different, but for none of us does it mean something easy.

For journalists, it means we must put aside our personal hope in favor of the scrutiny that some members of the media sacrificed in their coverage of the Bush administration’s actions after Sept. 11.

Award-winning reporter and media critic Kristina Borjesson authored a book called ‘Feet to the Fire’ in which she interviewed 21 influential journalists to break down media shortcomings in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. The problem, Borjesson said, has a lot to do with a prevailing failure to question power.

‘There’s this virtual reality that’s created by speeches and statements. If there’s nothing there to counter it, it becomes the (public’s) perception. And everybody acts on the perception. Whether it’s real or not, it’s now treated as real, so it becomes real,’ she said in a 2006 interview.

Perhaps those journalists did not ask hard questions, enough questions or the right questions. Perhaps some of them were asking, but people did not want to listen to the answers.

Either way, it cannot happen again.

There is an undeniable current of emotion surrounding Barack Obama. One need only watch the footage of his inauguration, the 2 million people stretched out for miles in the freezing cold to chant his name, to understand the enormous hope attached to this president.


But even as we are hopeful, we must be vigilant. We must cover Obama’s plans and policies as fairly, with as much scrutiny, as we might have wished the media of six, seven, eight years ago had possessed. In its own way, this is the journalism of true patriots: a journalism that is not hopeful, not blinded by its joy or tripping over itself to capture the obvious historical significance of this moment. We need a journalism that is curious, tenacious, enterprising, innovative and always objective.

Nothing in life is perfect, and journalism is a perfect mirror of life. We will not always get it right. There will always be networks and newspapers with a known conservative or liberal bias. But the fundamental basis of solid reporting cannot be spun and must not be allowed to disappear.

We would cheapen the accomplishments of this president if we did not question him. And we would undervalue our worth as Americans, as people, if we did not remember we deserve answers to those questions – even the ones we personally might rather not ask.

Petty is a senior studying journalism.