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One man's 'media frenzy' is another's route to truth

When will we come to a better understanding of the role of the news media? This question is occasioned by the April 6 City Hall news conference called by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, revealing that his 16-year-old son was the "mystery" person who, about a month and a half earlier, had taken the mayor's SUV without permission and ended up crashing it into several parked vehicles.

At least one speaker at the news conference attempted to warn gathered reporters not to turn the occasion into a "media frenzy," not to ask questions seemingly to spawn sensational headlines for the next day's front page.

As a journalist myself, I wish I had been at the news conference that morning and had such an admonishment directed toward me. "Excuse me," I might have responded. "I don't tell you how to do your job. Please, therefore, don't tell me how to do mine."

The news media walk a fine line. Lob cream-puff questions at newsmakers and the public charges that the media are soft. Ask the truly penetrating questions and some will label you intrusive.

But the role of the news media in this country is to serve as the bridge between the people and those whose actions, laws, declarations and deeds affect the people.

It was the legendary Joseph Pulitzer who characterized journalism as a "public service" institution, charged with the enormously important social responsibility of serving the citizenry by holding public officials' feet to the fire.

Even what may appear to the average person as an insensitive question is sometimes intentionally asked by experienced reporters. They know the way a question is expressed can often elicit a more candid, passionate and meaningful answer.

The American news media -- print and broadcast -- have taken a lot of knocks in recent years. Some were absolutely justified (remember Jayson Blair of the New York Times?).

Let's not lose sight, however, of the important, honest and objective efforts journalism professionals conscientiously make every day, at the local, regional and national level. They take their role as government watchdog, among other duties, very seriously. And each of us is the beneficiary of a free press, unfettered by agenda-peddling politicians and other officials who sometimes seek to muzzle the truth by questioning the media's motives instead of being honest about their own.

Do the news media make mistakes? You bet. Everyone does. But make no mistake about this: Whether it's The Buffalo News, a radio or TV news crew or some other media outlet, the vast majority of those who practice journalism do so with integrity, honesty and fairness. And with an eye toward getting at the truth.

That's something from which we all benefit. Even if, in the view of some, it isn't always a completely neat and orderly process.

Paul Chimera is a journalist, author and adjunct professor. He lives in Amherst.

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