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Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 22 News List

Playing a very critical role in the great debate

By Richard Bush

Five years can be both a short time and a long time. It is surprising, in a way, to realize that the Taipei Times has been in publication for only five years. It seems that it has been around much longer, providing news and commentary concerning political and social trends in Taiwan. As the nation's political mainstream has shifted, the Taipei Times has become an increasingly valuable resource for outsiders. Its Internet availability only enhances its value.

And yet it has been only five years -- five eventful years, to be sure -- since Lin Rong San (林榮三), Lee Chang-kuei (李長貴), and Antonio Chiang(江春男) founded the newspaper. That is still only a modest period of time. Indeed, the Taipei Times has a much shorter history than Taiwan's other newspapers. This anniversary offers an opportunity to assess the nation's broader media environment.

A good democracy cannot exist and survive without a good mass media. Print and broadcast journalism provide checks and balances to the activities of the state and of political leaders. Taiwan in particular requires an effective mass media because it faces profound choices: how to cope with the political and military challenge of China; how to build a competitive economy; and so on. These are choices that cannot be ignored. To not make a choice is to choose. Whatever the choice, it must not be made in ignorance. And it is here that organizations like the Taipei Times play a critical role.

What is important here is not the balance sheet of individual media organizations or whether their activities benefit the power of certain parties or political leaders. It is rather whether journalism helps the people ensure that their will is clearly reflected through the political system. It is the people, not shareholders or politicians, who are the core constituency of the media. Indeed, the Western metaphor for the media, "tribune of the people," refers to a Roman official whose duty was to represent the interests of the common people vis-a-vis the elite.

All democratic systems, even mature ones, distort the popular will to some extent -- through the role of money, for example, or the imperfections of institutions. The goal should be to reduce that distortion to a minimum. Doing so is particularly important in Taiwan, where the stakes -- the long-term future of 23 million people -- are high.

The mass media has two important roles to play in this regard. On the one hand, the media should provide the information that the public needs to understand the environment and issues that its political leaders and institutions face. But if the mass media ignore those topics and focus on the irrelevant or the sensational, the people suffer. And if the media provides information in an unprofessional or biased way, the people also suffer. If, for example, Taiwan's newspapers and TV stations either inaccurately exaggerate or minimize the military threat posed by China, how can the public judge the proper level of defense spending?

On the other hand, the mass media can provide a forum for the adherents of contending political stances to debate their policy proposals. It is through informed and substantive debate that the people come to understand the pros and cons of competing proposals. To continue the example above, when military experts debate what it is about China's military build-up that threatens Taiwan, the public benefits.

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