Should the Fourth Estate check the excesses of the powerful? As the media has become more powerful, to what extent has its power caused it to align its interests with the very individuals and institutions it is supposed to be watching?

I have become increasingly skeptical of the Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, New York Times, and Washington Post. The Forest Park Review isn’t going to replace the Trib or the Sun-Times, but it can draw attention to the unraveling of American democracy.

Is it extreme to say democracy itself is threatened?

Thought experiment: picture a society that allows people to vote, but the government controls the information available to the citizens. The government probably wouldn’t expose corruption much, right? The government would lie to build support for its policies. And the elections would be contests about things that the elites considered throw-away issues, right?

We aren’t that far from this scenario.

For whatever reason, big media made an alliance with the Bush administration to push the Iraq War. Hopefully, research and debate will explain why. But it happened.

Iraq was not a threat to the United States. It certainly wasn’t an immediate threat. We knew Iraq neither had nuclear weapons nor the ability to produce them in the next few years. Based on the information available at the time, Iraq might be suspected of having chemical or biological weapons. But having this technology didn’t make Iraq unique. There are dozens of countries that have more advanced chemical and biological technology. And a number of these countries are bigger risks for sharing this technology with al Qaeda than Iraq was.

Maybe the media”AP, Washington Post and New York Times”were duped. But they seemed almost enthusiastic about beating the drums of war. Bush administration claims and inferences were reported uncritically, even those that were almost assuredly false. The Democrats deserve some blame for not criticizing Bush administration lies in forceful terms. But it wasn’t like the media couldn’t find people who would criticize the Iraq War. The big media outlets simply chose not to cover these perspectives as being serious.

Casting further doubt on the media’s motives is the behavior of the New York Times and Washington Post now. If the Bush administration bamboozled the New York Times and Washington Post, you’d expect them to be outraged. How are they behaving?

The Washington Post actively resisted covering the “Downing Street Memos” that said Bush had decided to go to war and was fixing the intelligence around the decision. When pressured to cover the documents, the Washington Post derided them in a news article, and on the editorial page said they didn’t reveal anything new.

Apparently the Washington Post knew Bush’s claims to seek a non-military solution were lies even as the Post was reporting them as genuine. Or the Washington Post learned this information after the lies, and before the “Downing Street Memos” but didn’t consider it important enough to report.

The New York Times reported claims about Iraq’s WMD programs that weren’t true and didn’t meet accepted standards of journalism. Eventually the Times apologized, but continued to use the unethical journalist in question, Judith Miller.

Judith Miller has made quite a career of cozying up to the Right Wing of U.S. politics and shilling partisan stories. After helping Ahmed Chalabi peddle his lies about Iraq’s WMD program, Miller went on to help Chalabi peddle his claims about the UN Oil-for-Food Program.

Miller is a key figure in Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation of “two senior members of the Bush administration” exposing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative. Miller has asserted a First Amendment right not to testify before the grand jury. And the New York Times is backing Miller’s refusal, even though the privilege claim has been rejected by a federal judge and an appeals court and the Supreme Court declined to intervene.

But are Miller and the New York Times motivated exclusively by high-minded ideals about journalism? Because they were part of the underlying conspiracy to sell the Iraq War to the American public, they both stand to lose if Fitzgerald succeeds in making a wide-ranging conspiracy case. Also, Miller’s close relations with Chalabi, the Neo-Cons and Bush administration make me suspicious that she will be generously compensated for refusing to cooperate with Fitzgerald’s investigation.

So far the New York Times has convinced much of the professional journalist class to be sympathetic with Miller by presenting a one-sided version of the story. (Fitzgerald cannot release his evidence because grand jury proceedings are supposed to be kept secret.) The Times omits details like Miller breaking confidence of past sources and distorting information to present a more Republican-friendly story.

What does all this mean for Forest Park and local journalism?

The audience”you”should expect local journalism to either make the necessary effort to stay objective or fully disclose “special relationships” with the people being covered.

Here’s my disclosure: Karen Yarbrough, the state representative, and I are friendly. I worked to get her elected in 1998 and 2000. Mayor Anthony Calderone and Commissioner Mark Hosty bought me two or three beers on St. Patrick’s Day.

But local journalism also has a watchdog role on big media. We can’t replace complete coverage of national issues (although blogs can replace national media outlets for most people). However, local media, especially independent local media”the Pioneer Press chain of local newspapers is owned by the Sun-Times and is not “independent””should call out the big media outlets when they side with the elites and against their audiences. If one hand washes the other between government and big media, our elections become a sham.