One former state representative has been convicted of bribery. The trial of another is just beginning. With two more to come and investigations of possible corruption by Alaska's two most powerful lawmakers, what is the role of the news media? And how do we the people uphold the much valued ideal of presumed innocence?
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The prime time stories that have garnered the most recent editorial page attention are about Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. Neither will comment about the ongoing investigations, which is entirely appropriate. Yet both are implying unfair treatment by the media. Stevens has stated the stories are "incomplete and sometimes incorrect," while Young feels it's "journalism that's been really moving this constant curiosity along."
Some of arguments being made in newspapers across the state seem to agree that the press is attempting to prosecute our elected officials in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, letters to the editors spill across the table like contentious jury deliberations. Can our elected officials ever get fair treatment with all this publicity?
The ideals of justice and equality dictate that every human being be judged on the merits of all the evidence presented to an impartial jury. But a politician's term in office is to be on trial. Their legislative proposals, voting record, statements and public acts, all serve as evidence to the voters, the jury that will decide the case on election day. For the citizen to be duly informed, the unofficial fourth branch of government is supposed to report substantiated facts unfiltered to fit the prejudicial biases of the reporters, editors and publishers.
Justice in political life differs from the common idea of justice when it comes to the integrity of elected officials. The word worthy of special attention is "appearance." It is the perception of wrongdoing by a public servant that should be the trigger equivalent to probable cause. The "arrest" is the seizure of public attention. It's a democratic necessity that every aspect of possible political corruption be reported. History has revisited us all too often with cases of powerful people abusing their privilege of serving the people.
In the philosophical classic The Republic, published two-and-a-half centuries ago, Plato warned that "there will be no end to the troubles of states" until political power and philosophy unite in the hands of government. He proposed that the philosophical ideal of justice reverses the notion of fairness. The truly just leaders should always strive to place the health of the republic ahead of themselves, family and friends to such an extent as to risk placing each of them at a disadvantage.
This not only applies to wealth, but equally to abstract idealism. Democracy is better served by honesty rather than conveniently guided opinions away from uncomfortable realities. It is here that the opinion writer must strive to place the good of the people ahead of the political party to which their values pledge allegiance. Seeking to unduly influence public opinion with sleekly crafted arguments that displace the inconvenient facts are self-serving philosophies.
The political views proffered on the op/ed pages don't make the news, no more than the politicians can create it with press conferences. Events happen, and some of the facts at this stage of Stevens' and Young's career are law enforcement investigations. It's a newsworthy story when those who have chosen a life in the public spotlight appear to stumble onto a stage that conflicts with the public interest. Public interest should be raised well above the common distractions like Hollywood and the NFL.
Stevens and Young aren't criminal defendants, but regardless of where these investigations lead, it's appropriate that they'll be forced to defend themselves against even the appearance of conflicts of interest. They entered a life of public service fully aware of the role of perception, and a lack of indictment doesn't necessarily acquit them of abusing the power of their position.
What needs to change in all of America is the belief that having powerful allies in Congress is about exchanging benefits. That's where the troubles to our democracy originate. The best leaders honor the philosophical truths first without seeking to reward their loyal constituents.
Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.
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