Does that leave citizens clueless? Not quite. In a digital world, there's easier access to multiple sources of facts and analysis than ever before. But even as journalists lose their hold on a distracted public, they remain indispensable for arousing democracy and holding liars, bullies, and cheaters accountable.

If ever there were a time for unbridled journalism, this would be it: terrorist mayhem, war, corporate scandal, ecological crisis, economic upheaval. Public passion and curiosity have been stoked. But the potential investigators have been, to a considerable degree, otherwise occupied. Historians will someday burrow among the musty artifacts of America's supercharged 24/7 news organizations—TV with its glammed-up sets, its convention skyboxes and satellite feeds; the well-fed correspondents on a firstname basis with second-rate sources; the newsmagazines with their gloss, gossip, and fluff—and they will rub their eyes and marvel that a nation possessed of such an enormous industry ostensibly specializing in the gathering and distribution of facts could yet remain so befogged.

Befogged we have been, and don't take my word for it. With the nonappearance of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the problem grew sufficiently glaring that, earlier this year, the spirit of self-scrutiny spread throughout the nation's prestige press like a belated burst of antibodies. Here is the New York Times' ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, writing on May 30—14 months after the bombs began falling on Baghdad: "Some of The Times's coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby." Two months later, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz issued his own paper's self-critique, chastising "coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly onesided at times." Make due allowance for the boilerplate qualifications—"in hindsight," "looks," "at times"—and you see a condemnation so harsh, you know the blunders must have been grave indeed. Never before has American journalism been driven to correct itself so lavishly.

Yet even now, the news industry remains unwilling or unable to come to grips with the full scope and system of its failures, and the narrowness of the media's self-criticism does not inspire confidence that they will refuse to swallow government propaganda the next time. (Television news bigwigs, for one, have yet to admit any responsibility for having escorted the nation into a calamitous war.) In fact, the malfunctions extend far beyond the question of WMD, beyond even the routine deceptions of George W. Bush. The machinery of truth-telling has broken down.

THE MACHINERY was creaky already. In truth, journalism's golden age of Vietnam and Watergate exposés was not so golden. It took years to undo the lies about "progress" in Vietnam, and for many months, most news organizations missed the magnitude of the criminal operations running out of the Nixon White House.

Much of the time since then, the Fourth Estate has remained distracted. The Iran-Contra scandal lay scattered about in plain view until the dots were connected by a Beirut magazine. In the 1990s, any sense of proportion went missing: As murderous Islamism oozed out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Osama bin Laden fine-tuned his massacre machine, O.J. beckoned... and Whitewater... and Princess Diana. In 1998 and 1999, when Al Qaeda was gathering force and bombing embassies, the obsession of America's media was...Monica Lewinsky (and Clinton was accused of only seeking to distract us when he bombed bin Laden's camp).

Journalists have missed many a boat. But the problem of the past few years is that the media have taken to escorting the boat—amplifying disingenuous claims, downplaying doubts, belittling dissent. As it thrashed about in a state of emergency, America needed solid reporting—and solid skepticism—more than ever. Instead, large numbers of people were left believing that some of the September 11 hijackers were Iraqis, that Saddam Hussein was implicated in the terror attacks, and that the United States had actually found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

IT IS NOT TOO MUCH TO SAY that the press has let the public down on every one of the big life-and-death stories of our time. Begin with those unforgettable 35 days in Florida in 2000, when reporters let Republicans get away with their chosen story line: Bush was the presumptive victor and Gore was trying to deprive him of his due. NBC's Tim Russert again and again suggested that Gore be the statesmanlike gent and bow out. Never once did I see a network bigfoot suggest that Bush do the graceful thing and step aside. Bush was cast as president-in-waiting, Gore as the interfering usurper.

Then, from the moment George Bush walked into the White House, he was excused from serious scrutiny. It would have seemed invasive, ungenerous, downright mean to inquire too forcefully of a chief executive so, well, unchieflike. Anyway, this White House was known to slam the door on overly feisty reporters.

In a remarkable piece three months into Bush's term, John F. Harris of the Washington Post wrote that Bush "has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living writing about those uproars.... Do you suppose there would have been an uproar under Clinton if Democrats had been rewarding donors with special closed-door briefings by Cabinet secretaries? GOP donors received just such a briefing with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson as thanks for their efforts. Far from an uproar, the story has had only a faint echo. Clinton's 'donor maintenance' coffees led to a year of congressional inquiries."

Bush received an even broader pass after September 11. At least until American bodies piled up in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib revelations cracked through, journalists clearly feared that seeming to cast discredit on the commander in chief would smack of insufficient patriotism. (The New York Times' chief Bush watcher, Elisabeth Bumiller, commented on a Bush press conference on the eve of the Iraq war: "I think we were very deferential because... nobody wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.") Obsequious stenography would protect the Washington press corps from cries of "liberal media." There was—and remains—considerable reluctance to invoke what a Times reporter I spoke to called "reportorial authority," which, as he put it, would require that "when the president says the sun rose in the west, we take it upon ourselves to say no."

And so, White House talking points crystallized in the news as established fact. NBC's Today show was just one of many to describe the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the federalization of airport security screeners as moves by "the Bush administration" that were part of its "campaign to keep America safe"—even though Bush had opposed both. TV news regularly described the war in Iraq as the centerpiece of the "war on terror."

The run-up to the war saw a chain-reacting scandal of gullibility. When the administration brandished Saddam's purchase of aluminum tubes as proof that he was developing nuclear weapons, journalists snapped to attention and buried the intelligence agencies' doubts. When Bush claimed that Saddam had shopped for uranium in Africa, journalists duly recorded his words even though the claim had already been dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and it was obvious that the documents in question were forged. When Colin Powell flaunted a slide show at the United Nations with then CIA director George Tenet posing behind him as a prop, that was good enough to establish the "nearly encyclopedic" (the New York Times' front-page term) nature of the secretary of state's case.

After the invasion, some news organizations played impressive catch-up on the WMD issue and others (the failure to predict looting, the range of Iraqi opinion regarding the occupation). But on other fronts, news departments—often emblazoned with flags and gung-ho logos—strived to prove nothing except that they were on the team. Rather than seeking the Iraqi side of the battles, they played along with the Pentagon's "embedding" game and sanitized the war. News chiefs neglected pictures of civilian casualties that ran everywhere else in the world. They hyped the takedown of the Saddam statue. They bent the Jessica Lynch rescue into a distorted escape movie, as Pfc. Lynch herself later dared to point out. One has to wonder whether the Abu Ghraib revelations would have splashed their way onto the front pages had whistleblowers not supplied digital photos. Journalists on their own were simply not digging hard enough.

To be sure, journalists in Iraq have been inhibited by the dangers of reporting outside the safety zone of American force protection. But important stories are still missing even though there would be no personal risk in covering them—for example, the construction of up to 14 well-nigh permanent American military bases in Iraq (under, no surprise there, a contract with Halliburton).

If journalism's lapses on Iraq were exceptional, we might be more confident of its performance on other subjects. But the media have been buffaloed with regularity, to the point where the great game of catch-up now seems more the rule than the exception. Consider one of the greatest dangers facing humanity: convulsive climate change. As the world continues to binge on oil and coal, the temperature of the atmosphere soars while the weather goes haywire. Yet for years, the news media considered the question of climate change a matter of legitimate debate. A small band of paid-for scientists were ushered into the media spotlight again and again, obscuring the fact that most of the world's experts had long since agreed on the nature and scope of the crisis. After years of this obfuscation—which helped make Bush's dismissal of the Kyoto agreement seem more acceptable—U.S. journalists have, thankfully, seen reason.

Partially, anyway. Nowadays, "Study Finds Climate Shift Threatens California" does land in the New York Times—on page A18. What, me worry? One academic study has shown that, during a six-month period in 1999-2000, Britain's Guardian devoted three times more coverage to the climate issue than the Washington Post, more than twice as much as the New York Times, and nearly five times as much as the Los Angeles Times. These days, the news distributes occasional snippets about melting glaciers and fragmenting ice shelves—better than nothing, but scarcely a full-blown investigation of a condition that is rapidly changing the fundamental conditions of life on earth. TV news serves up breathless updates on the latest hurricane, flood, heat wave, or wildfire—but, as Ross Gelbspan points out in his new book, Boiling Point, without any hint that severe weather has anything to do with human-created climate change.

One network news editor told Gelbspan that the one time his broadcast did run a story linking extreme weather with climate change, the network received "a barrage of complaints" from industry lobbyists. This is one reason why, on this and other issues, news organizations resort to stenography—he-said-she-said as a substitute for research and judgment. Some people say the climate is changing catastrophically. Some other people say the first crowd are Chicken Littles. End of story. Similarly, even as the Swift Boat veterans' lie-and-distraction campaign crashed against John Kerry's amply documented record, journalists decreed that there was a certified "dispute" about the candidate's wartime actions.

Stenography plays into the hands of liars, self-deluders, and obfuscators of all stripes. The obfuscators know this, of course, which is why they make sure to keep boxing journalists about the ears, ragging on them as "filters," toying with them. It's a dominance game played against "girlie men." It's a hit-and-run gambit the Bush crowd has been perfecting since the days when they turned Willie Horton into the poster boy for liberalism. And it's a game they routinely win as long as reporters, cowed by the "liberal media" charge, turn themselves into megaphones for the right-wing noise machine.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States singled out the press for special mention and protection not because the founders admired the press of their time—it was raucous and wildly unreliable—but because they well understood the self-aggrandizing tendencies of unbridled power. They shielded the press not because they believed publishers to be saints or savants, but because they knew it might take unshackled sinners to curb the grandest sinners of all. Had they imagined global carnage and global warming two centuries hence and more, they might well have thought, "In the face of such dangers, now we will be vindicated for caring so assiduously for the liberty of the press. Surely in times that retry men's souls, the watchdogs of the press will bark." Imagine their chagrin if they could see the press becoming that sagging branch of distraction, "the media."

But they would also never say die. They would say that perhaps the journalistic passion to "undo the folded lie," as W.H. Auden put it—to curb what Walt Whitman called "the never-ending audacity of elected persons"—is only asleep. Perhaps the yearning for truth and reason does not succumb so helplessly. Perhaps the public will refuse to keep flying blind.