It seems like every day we hear Donald Trump mock, deride, impugn, and belittle the news media as “fake” or sub-par. If I had to register my agreement or disagreement with that assessment, I would say I am 75% “calling bullshit” on him, and 25% in agreement. In this blog, I will share a few thoughts about the state, dignity, role, function, ethics, potential, and problems of modern newspapers, magazines, newszines, and television and cable news networks. Blogs I don’t know too much about so I will leave alone. In a word, I believe that journalism is marred by some tragic flaws, if you will, but has enough potential that we need to enliven, rehabilitate, and bolster it.
As one can read in this Atlantic Monthly article, the current (2/2018) situation is complex and perplexing; it is true that Donald Trump is woefully-prepared to be president, and lies constantly. He is probably the worst president in a century or more. However, his claims about the FBI and the media cannot be dismissed summarily. The media is ridiculous, in a way, and the FBI was indeed once headed by J. Edgar Hoover. We’re not talking chivalrous knights and sinister villains, here. “Even a broken clock is correct twice a day,” as it were. When Trump lobs the apparent obfuscation of truth that “the media is fake” or whatever he claims, it is mostly cynical and in bad faith, but it does highlight a grain of truth. It’s complex to tease apart. And this is regrettable because the press is ideally supposed to be a functional, reliable, capable institution that plays a role in society.
“Once upon a time, Americans could read their local newspaper, subscribe to a weekly newsmagazine, and watch thirty minutes of national news on television each night, and be reasonably sure they knew everything important and newsworthy that they needed to know to live their lives. Those days are long gone.” ~ Bruce Bartlett
Senator Jeff Flake, who recently made a big splash by coming out and saying “the emperor has no clothes” about Donald Trump, has added this pithy phrase to the world’s storehouse of wisdom: “Despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy.” Indeed, Thomas Jefferson agreed with Thomas Carlyle that journalism outfits were “The Fourth Estate,” meaning that it is an indispensable part of the social fabric. It is the veritable way that citizens have a chance to get good information about what is going on in society; otherwise, the only sources would have been gossip, “town criers,” and the powers that be.
As we know from watching the farce that is the Donald Trump presidency, if the public was only able to learn what Trump wanted us to know, we would be in a seriously sorry state, with misinformation, propaganda, and falsehood being fed to the public like dog treats by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I think it was George W. Bush who first began to diminish the role and privileges of the media, wishing the newspapers would be more like loudspeakers for his momentous moves powered by nefarious motives. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that outlets such as the New York Times were, um, less than vigilant and propagated the “official line” of the Administration on more than one occasion. That plus the Jayson Blair incident were really egg on the face of the storied and venerable Times.
Here is a neat paragraph about journalism and integrity from the link above (the Fourth Estate): “The fact of the matter is that democracy requires informed citizens. No governing body can be expected to operate well without knowledge of the issues on which it is to rule, and rule by the people entails that the people should be informed. In a representative democracy, the role of the press is twofold: it both informs citizens and sets up a feedback loop between the government and voters. The press makes the actions of the government known to the public, and voters who disapprove of current trends in policy can take corrective action in the next election. Without the press, the feedback loop is broken and the government is no longer accountable to the people. The press is therefore of the utmost importance in a representative democracy.”
Hear, hear! Democracy requires informed citizens. Let’s all repeat that: democracy requires informed citizens (and that goes for citizens in this oligarchic-leaning republic, as well).
“To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer ‘by restraining it to true facts and sound principles only.’ Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
The core function of the press is not merely to inform, however; it is also to provide the opportunity for readers and viewers to learn of perspectives that differ from their own. To try to avoid falling victim to confirmation bias, as it were. Famous investor Warren Buffett puts the tendency this way: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
Shane Parrish describes the natural human tendency thusly: “Our use of this cognitive shortcut is understandable. Evaluating evidence (especially when it is complicated or unclear) requires a great deal of mental energy. Our brains prefer to take shortcuts. This saves the time needed to make decisions, especially when we’re under pressure. As many evolutionary scientists have pointed out, our minds are unequipped to handle the modern world. For most of human history, people experienced very little new information during their lifetimes. Decisions tended to be survival based. Now, we are constantly receiving new information and have to make numerous complex choices each day. To stave off ‘overwhelm’, we have a natural tendency to take shortcuts.”
The Stanford site makes this bias relevant to journalism: “…while people can in theory get information about the actions of their government from online sources, it is all too easy to find opinions online that match one’s own. Informed decision-making on the part of voters requires an awareness of multiple points of view, which is not likely to be obtained if voters bear the sole responsibility of seeking out information on relevant issues. The news media provide a forum for debates to take place, as well as moderating and curating the arguments presented by all sides.”
“We seem to prefer a comfortable lie to the uncomfortable truth. We punish those who point out reality, and reward those who provide us with the comfort of illusion. Reality is fearsome … but experience tells us that more fearsome yet is evading it.” ~ Bill Moyers
We seem to have the wish, and at times, the belief, that the media is trustworthy. Think of Brian Williams: good looking, seems astute, appears to have integrity. Wrong. John Cavanaugh and Jerry Mander (yes, that is his real name!) note the following: Indeed, there used to be a thing –
Most important, media offers the illusion of transparency; it seems to be just a neutral window through which reality is passed on to us, rather than a set of technologies in the hands of specific people with specific intent who are often deeply engaged in choosing, creating, and defining the realities we experience, which are then “entered” directly into millions of brains around the world. Far from being a neutral window, media has a central role in influencing political, cultural, economic, social, and environmental issues, and in determining whether people and communities will fully grasp the true situations they face or what to do about them.
Indeed, there used to be a thing – the Fairness Doctrine – but alas, it was denounced and disestablished by the Republicans in the 1980s. Bruce Bartlett, however, felt that it wasn’t really all that well designed. Fairness, truth, and legitimacy are significantly important, though – especially with the influence of money and pressure and competition on the industry. Note that that link is to FAIR – the group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. It’s a worthy site. Bookmark it.
Journalists and their institutions are supposed to tell the truth. However, you hear realistic and fair criticism of the media, the press, the news, and so on from both sides of the political spectrum. I’m excluding the Trump/Limbaugh/Fox News wing of because it’s too full of crap to really consider in this context. But Eric Alterman is a noted scholar on the Left who certainly notes that “the mainstream media” is questionable at times, lazy a fair amount of the time, and derelict in its duty more often than they should be. Clearly, when money is involved in an activity or institution on which the public relies, trouble is not far away. And I can’t say that the caricature of the media as having a “liberal bias” is completely false, or totally benign.
Journalists and their institutions are supposed to tell the truth. Bruce Bartlett, author of the new book The Truth Matters, agrees. In this article, Michael Winship writes for BillMoyers.com – another truth-teller – and shows why it is a worthy read. It helps one to ferret out legitimate facts, suss out differing perspectives, and detect truth when one is reading or listening to pre-packaged broadcasts/articles. It’s good stuff. Here is an example: “Never one to pull punches, [Bartlett] has been a pointed critic of the Trump administration and what has happened to the Republican Party he once called home. Now a self-described independent, [he writes]: “The simplest way to explain my intellectual and political evolution is that I had previously seen the Republican glass as half-full, now I saw it as half-empty. (These days, it is completely empty.)”
Another doozie Winship gets Bartlett to share is this: “After the election, I was rather dismayed by the results and I thought about why it was that so many of my fellow Americans voted for the most incompetent person who’s ever run for president, let alone been elected president. And I believed then and believe still today that the media had a great deal to do with this.” He is talking about media integrity and the ethics of the entire field of journalism. One more answer Bartlett gives shows you where he is coming from in the fairly inexpensive book (that takes a day to read):
“Thanks to my solid academic training, today I can write hundreds of words on virtually any topic without possessing a shred of information, which is how I got a good job in journalism.” ~ Dave Barry
“One of the things I talk about in the book is that, because politicians and other powerful people, corporations, now have so much more power than the media, they can ignore the media, or go around them, or go to their competitors with information. The media are forced to sort of go hat in hand to their sources and basically promise them, not in so many words of course, that, ‘Look, whatever you tell me, I’ll just repeat verbatim.’ And so they’ve sort of become stenographers rather than reporters.” Media ethics is very important, and I had the pleasure to sit down with Fred Brown and Daniel Hallin, both experts in the ethics and integrity of the press. Here is a transcript.
He concludes: “Obviously, that’s not what journalists should be doing. They need to be subjecting statements to scrutiny and determine whether they’re truthful or not. So in order for the media to fulfill their function, they have completely separate organization that they call fact-checking, and these fact-checkers will do due diligence and say, “OK, this statement is a lie,” or ‘This statement is clearly untrue.'” Bravo, I say. Journalism at its best.
One of the most impressive things I have seen in regard to journalistic ethics, fact-checking, and integrity is The Masthead, a project of The Atlantic, the noted magazine. This is the angle: “Before any article makes it into The Atlantic magazine, it goes through Yvonne Rolzhausen and her fact-checking team. For nearly thirty years, long before the term ‘alternative facts’ entered our lexicon, Yvonne has been making sure every word The Atlantic prints is true.” Indeed, she goes through an exhaustive process. I mean exhaustive. Let me see how much I can share without boring you or getting myself into trouble with The Atlantic. Yvonne Rolzhausen writes:
In a world where “fake news” thrives and basic editorial standards are often jettisoned as unnecessary expenses, fact-checkers can sometimes feel like an endangered species. But The Atlantic is dedicated to accuracy and truth—and therefore to rigorous factchecking. Our pieces seek to be thought-provoking and interesting—but to be truly insightful, they must be right.
Checkers verify every fact published in our magazine, from specific details and quotes to larger generalities. We think about a piece on a variety of levels: Are the basic facts correct? Are the facts underlying various opinions correct? And, finally, do they all fit together into a comprehensive and solid argument? We go word by word, line by line. For an intensively-reported piece, I might have dozens of sources to contact and hundreds of questions for an author. The process can take anywhere from a few hours (for a very short article) to weeks or even months (for a complex, legally-fraught one).
Why is the media so criticized? These folks go to school, they are more liberal than conservative, they are probably decent people in other areas of their lives. It’s the system. Really.
“A handful of corporations are consolidating their grip on the nation’s primary information sources. Megacorporations already own the major radio and TV networks, as well as most newspapers, magazines, book publishers and movie studios. Is it any surprise that editors and news directors reflect the concerns of their corporate bosses?” discloses
My sister Kelly Haas feels this way about the influence of money on journalistic integrity: “The media conglomerations are all bought. They refuse to report the truth for fear that they will lose their big advertisers. Do you think that the nightly news is going to run a story bashing a pharmaceutical company and their vaccinations when most of the commercials are from the pharmaceutical companies? They would go out of business. But it’s a sad state of affairs because they ignore the truth at all costs.” That’s probably further than I would go, but she does have back-up: “The 6 o’clock news is a reality-based entertainment devised to titillate more than educate, a cheap confection designed to aggregate eyeballs for advertisers”
“Nowadays, the argument is that the major media has a liberal bias. The major media has long been based in cities, where people tend to be more socially liberal. Additionally, people with a liberal disposition have tended to gravitate to journalism as a profession.” ~ Bruce Bartlett
No less a wise and insightful media critic as Ralph Nader pretty much agrees: “Thomas Jefferson put great responsibility on the newspapers of his day to safeguard our democracy from excessive commercial power and their runaway political toadies. Certainly, our history has some great examples of the press fulfilling Jefferson’s wish. For the most part, however, any media that is heavily reliant on advertisements will clip its own wings or decide to go with light-hearted entertainment or fluff, rather than dig in the pits of corruption and wrongdoing.”
With the establishment media concentrated in the hands of a few media conglomerates that answer to Wall Street, the best hope for an informed citizenry is the survival of an independent and adversary media that was envisioned when the Founders framed the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.”
“To become informed and hold government accountable, the general public needs to obtain news that is comprehensive yet interesting and understandable, that conveys facts and outcomes, not cosmetic images and airy promises. But that is not what the public demands.” ~ Eric Alterman
“It’s been an amazing few months for journalism. After an, ahem, mixed performance in the 2016 campaign, the nation’s newsrooms pulled their gumption out of storage, squared up their shoulders, and went to work investigating an administration committed not just to the usual spin and evasion, but to full-scale war on the public’s right to know. The result has been something of a golden age for investigative reporting, when journalism (along with the courts, and a resurgence of civic activism) has stiffened the spine of democracy in the face of an assault on its core precepts”
Don’t even get me started on Facebook, Twitter, The Huffington Post, all those damned conservative blogs with their addictiveness and pap and soundbites and selling ads to fake news stories planted by Russian operatives. It’s just too dark and dispiriting. I am also dismayed that the media didn’t tell a lot of truth and give a really fair shot to Bernie Sanders, but ceaselessly sold the sensationalism of Trump and, by and large, went for the “establishment candidate,” Hillary Clinton.
“With some honorable exceptions, Washington journalism is so far removed from reality that I am frequently reminded of the warning of a mentor some years ago: ‘News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity.’”
This is all sad because despite “yellow journalism” and men like William Randolph Hearst and other examples of chicanery in America’s past, there is also reporting to be proud of. Certainly, the impulse behind “muckraking” journalism is honorable and played a significant role in progress. I think a lot of Edward R. Murrow and Dick Friendly vis-a-vis Joseph McCarthy; clearly, they were wearing a big, red “J” on their blue, caped uniforms (if you can imagine a caped crusader smoking cigarettes virtually non-stop). If you haven’t seen the movie Goodnight, and Good Luck, stop what you are doing and watch it! Fantastic movie.
Integrity. Transparency. Honesty. Truth. Here are the Five Principles of Ethical Journalism, according to the Ethical Journalism Network:
1. Truth and Accuracy
Journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth’, but getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism. We should always strive for accuracy, give all the relevant facts we have and ensure that they have been checked. When we cannot corroborate information we should say so.
Journalists must be independent voices; we should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or cultural. We should declare to our editors – or the audience – any of our political affiliations, financial arrangements or other personal information that might constitute a conflict of interest.
3. Fairness and Impartiality
Most stories have at least two sides. While there is no obligation to present every side in every piece, stories should be balanced and add context. Objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable (in the face for example of brutality or inhumanity), but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.
Journalists should do no harm. What we publish or broadcast may be hurtful, but we should be aware of the impact of our words and images on the lives of others.
A sure sign of professionalism and responsible journalism is the ability to hold ourselves accountable. When we commit errors we must correct them and our expressions of regret must be sincere, not cynical. We listen to the concerns of our audience. We may not change what readers write or say but we will always provide remedies when we are unfair.
“The myth of the liberal media empowers conservatives to control debate in the United States to the point where liberals cannot even hope for a fair shake anymore.” ~ Eric Alterman
Let me share a half-dozen sources besides Bruce Bartlett’s The Truth Matters, The Masthead via the Atlantic Magazine (which costs $12 a month to be a part of), The EJN, and FAIR. Bartlett’s book is really worth reading because he shares much of what he learned as a journalist in an effort to enlighten the reader as to how to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were.
- Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras are journalists of such integrity that Edward Snowden trusted them to disclose the government shenanigans he felt were worth risking his career for. A cool movie was made, entitled Citizen Four. Here is a brief YouTube interview about it.
- Snopes, a fact-checking site.
- Eric Alterman’s website, books, and articles
- The Nation
- The Economist
At the risk of going on too long, I want to share what uber-intellectual Mortimer J. Adler said on this topic in 1940, I believe. When looking into current events reporting, “The most important thing to know,” he wrote in the book How to Read a Book, is who is writing the report. What is involved is not so much an acquaintance with the reporter himself as with the kind of mind he has. The various sorts of filter reporters fall into groups. To understand what kind of filter our reporter’s mind has, we must ask a series of questions about it. …The questions are these: What does the author want to prove?” Frankly his other suggestions are a bit off the mark. He also didn’t have to contend, in 1940, with the awesome pressure reporters face vis-a-vis their editors, and that the editors face vis-a-vis the owners, and that the owners face vis-a-vis media conglomeration and the Internet. When paper and magazine sales are way down from historical highs, it leads to lay-offs, streamlining, budget cutting, and corner-cutting. Some wonder whether, with seven mega-corporations controlling 80% or more of news production and fierce competition, newspapers will still have a role in society. Not, I would guess, if the government keeps whittling away at freedom of the press and the very nature of truth. Ω
I will end with a few quotes about good journalism and media ethics. Let me kick it off with another inspiring thought by Yvonne Rolzhausen:
“Part detective, part therapist, part comrade-in-arms, fact-checkers should be guardian angels sitting on an author’s shoulder, making sure that their arguments are based in fact, rather than supposition. Such intensive scrutiny may make it seem like we are trying to tear down an argument—but our intention is opposite. We tease the argument apart only to build it back up with even greater strength. Our work requires diligence, tenacity, diplomacy, patience, and pretty much constant fear. But it is always interesting. And in a too often careless world, it can even feel noble.”
“In the long run, political parties and movements are best served by truth, accuracy, and responsible news reporting. It may be that this needs to be subsidized in some way. The federal government has long done this by giving newspapers and magazines subsidized mailing rates, and radio and television stations were given extremely valuable spectrum for literally nothing.” ~ Bruce Bartlett
“Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” ~ Henry Anatole Grunwald
“For years, major news organizations have been accused of falling short of the ideal of the impartiality that they espouse. Now, the very notion of impartiality is under assault, blurring the line between journalism and propaganda.”
“The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective source I have are people on my staff.”
“More than illness or death, the American journalist fears standing alone against the whim of his owners or the prejudices of his audience. Deprive William Safire of the insignia of the New York Times, and he would have a hard time selling his truths to a weekly broadsheet in suburban Duluth.” ~ Lewis Lapham
“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising. The power is to set the agenda. What we print and what we don’t print matter a lot.” ~ Katharine Graham
“We must also learn to be more discerning about our news sources and beware of ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts,’ which are propagated by people interested only in maximizing clicks, even if it means peddling lies and half-truths, or even by foreign governments using our own freedom of speech against us to pursue their own agenda at our expense.” ~ Bruce Bartlett
“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.” ~ Christopher Hitchens
“Journalism of late seems too eager to change the world in various ways; the point is to describe it, accurately and carefully.” ~ David Burr Gerrard
“American journalism (like the journalism of any other country) is predominantly paltry and worthless. Its pretensions are enormous, but its achievements are insignificant.” ~ H. L. Mencken
“The journalists have constructed for themselves a little wooden chapel, which they also call the Temple of Fame, in which they put up and take down portraits all day long and make such a hammering you can’t hear yourself speak.” ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
“While fact-checking is all to the good, my problem with it is that it shouldn’t be considered a separate journalistic function, but rather the core function of all journalism. If reporters and editors aren’t routinely fact-checking everything they publish, what the heck are they doing instead?” ~ Bruce Bartlett
“America’s great newspapers have staffs that range from 50 percent to 70 percent of what they were just a few years ago.” ~ Eric Alterman
“Newspaper editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff.” ~ Adlai E. Stevenson
“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
“Part competitiveness and part payback for the years of professional criticism I had directed at US media stars, there was, I believe, also anger and even shame over the truth that adversarial journalism had exposed: reporting that angers the government reveals the real role of so many mainstream journalists, which is to amplify power.”
“In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press.” ~ Oscar Wilde
“Many progressive elements see the Internet as the ultimate tool to beat back corporations on behalf of more democratic community and individual empowerment. And the instrument has much to recommend it. However, while acknowledging this potential, cautionary notes are appropriate, because the Internet may ultimately be subject to many of the same commercial interventions from powerful corporations as plague the rest of the mass media; furthermore, it does not inevitably perform for the progressive side of the agenda.” ~ John Cavanaugh and Jerry Mander
“The people will believe what the media tells them they believe.”
“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson
“In the 1990s, the Internet and twenty-four-hour cable news channels made it even easier for politicians to get their message out, and reporters began to lose their gatekeeper function. The economic decline of newspapers and other traditional media led to a sharp decline in both the number and the quality of reporters. Rather than take the time to thoroughly report a story, journalists are now forced to report first and ask questions later, which makes for more inaccuracies.” ~ Bruce Bartlett
“On major issues there is a very noticeable split between elite and popular opinion, and the media consistently reflect elite opinion.”
“I wasn’t surprised by this type of investigation. It is, in fact, standard operating procedure for the little lambs of American journalism. One good, slick explanation from a politician or corporate chieftain, and it’s case closed, investigation over.”
“Blogs are assailed on all sides, by the crushing economics of the business, dishonest sources, inhuman deadlines, pageview quotas, inaccurate information, greedy publishers, poor training, the demands of the audience, and so much more. These incentives are real, whether you’re at The Huffington Post or some tiny blog. Taken individually, the resulting output is obvious: bad stories, incomplete stories, wrong stories, unimportant stories.” ~ Ryan Holiday
“But when our elected officials and our political campaign become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations. It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America’s strength. It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society — because how we operate is not just based on laws, it’s based on habits and customs and restraint and respect.” ~ Barack Obama
“Those who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations, and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own class interests as well. Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing the values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms.” ~ Noam Chomsky
“I believe democracy requires a ‘sacred contract’ between journalists and those who put their trust in us to tell them what we can about how the world really works.” ~ Bill Moyers
“Much attention has been given recently to the ethics of journalism, and one of the key issues in this debate is the morality of using the truth as a tool for manipulation of public opinion. When journalists present facts out of context or accurately quote the ‘bogus claims’ of misinformed sources, they can easily deceive their audiences without ever technically telling a lie.”
“Ethics and professional standards are one defense against fake news, but the intensity of competition has diminished their value. Indeed, there is now a sort of race to the bottom, wherein unambiguously disreputable media organizations have achieved goals unimaginable just a few years ago, such as being credentialed to the White House press corps.” ~ Bruce Bartlett
Look up quotes about journalism, journalistic integrity, and media ethics in The Wisdom Archive; always free, always unique.