Maybe part of what’s wrong with journalism today is not journalists, but readers.
You don’t have to engage in many conversations about the news to find people whose main complaint is that they read a story containing information they didn’t like or didn’t want to know about.
A representative sample from a recent Facebook post:
“I dread when (X) writes an article. The spin he(/she) puts on his(/her) writing is not helpful.”
Ignore the reference to spin. That accusation, like the charge of fake news, is bandied about all the time these days whether it’s true or not. No, the key word here is the last: “helpful.”
Some people now appear to think journalism is supposed to be “helpful.” It’s not.
Mainly, journalism is supposed to be questioning. The cornerstones taught beginning journalists are that new stories should answer the questions who, what, when, where, how and if possible why.
Stories that do that turn out to be informative, and while they might be helpful to some, they are seldom helpful to all. Nor should they be.
A lot of news centers on the mistakes people make and the things people do that they shouldn’t do, be the latter acts criminal or political or both. And given the political and social climates of today – supercharged as they are with partisanship – anything deemed less than helpful to one tribe is likely to be celebrated by another and vice versa.
“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black observed in 1971. “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”
Black was there echoing the words of Finley Peter Dunne, a humorist and writer from the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th who is widely credited with the observation that the job of the media is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Nationally in this country, that idea has been fading for some time. Some, probably too many, journalists became friends with the comfortable, and you don’t afflict your friends. Others became the servants of the governors.
Journalists to a large degree forgot their responsibility to censure during the two-terms of Barack Obama, the nation’s first, African-American president. The euphoria of the idea that a man of color, in a nation still split by race, could win election to the most important political position in the world made many journalists forget the need to ride herd on their heroes as aggressively as on their enemies.
Obama’s Drone War represents but one example of media acquiescence. It never attracted the attention it deserved, and when it did the context was shifted to a new target.
“Obama’s Weak Defense of His Record on Drone Killings,” The Atlantic headlined in Dec. 2016. “His choices made unjust strikes predictable and inevitable—and with Donald Trump poised to take power, the precedents he set are all the more alarming.”
Never mind that the Obama-ordered killings by Empire-esque drones possessed of a Star Warian style that left hundreds of civilians dead were plenty alarming on their own.
“Two terms and 540 strikes later, Obama leaves the White House after having vastly expanding and normalizing the use of armed drones for counterterrorism and close air support operations in non-battlefield settings—namely Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia,” Micah Zenko wrote at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Zenko put the total number of civilian dead at 324. The government of Pakistan put the death toll in that country alone at 400 to 600 with more than 600 others injured. In a 74-page report in 2013, Amnesty International suggested the Obama administration should be investigated for committing “war crimes” in connection with Pakistan drone attacks on innocents.
The drone attacks drew very little attention from a media which has since aggressively pursued any contacts President Donald Trump might have had with Russians in the run-up to the election.
Powered by their disdain for Trump – who is as admittedly prone to mistruths as Lyin’ Brian Williams of MSNBC – the media has returned to a watchdog role it should never have abandoned, but the contrast between what was and what is now makes today’s behavior look like nothing but a witch hunt to Trump supporters.
OK, so the problem is in part the media, and it is admittedly simplistic to even suggest the problems started with Obama.
But it’s not all the media. There’s some symbiosis going on here.
Tom Huddleston Jr. at Fortune in 2016 credited the New York Times’ coverage of Trump with helping power a big jump in newspaper subscriptions. “The New York Times Has 132,000 Reasons to Thank Donald Trump,” the headline above the story read.
Getting the Times delivered to your door every day for a year costs about $240. At that rate, those subscriptions would be worth more than $31 million to the Times, not counting whatever additional advertising the growing circulation might help the Times leverage.
Clearly there is money to be made as the Trump attack dog just as there is money to be made as the Trump protector. Trump-leaning Fox News is a $2.3 billion company that has led cable news network ratings for 15 years.
These are the economic realities of news. The United States is a market driven economy.
In market-driven economies, consumers tend to get what they want sooner or later, and a lot of consumers these days really don’t want news – they want propaganda.
They want what is “helpful” to their side, agenda, cause or tribe. The country now has a fake news problem for the same reason it has long had a drug problem: There is a demand for the product, and there is money to be made because of that demand.
This upsets some people. Under pressure from politicians both in the U.S. and Europe, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – who has made billions off the platform that allows “friends” to “share” news, stories, rumors, fish tales, phony golf scores and everything in-between – has vowed to launch a war on fake news.
Zuckerberg’s war sounds a lot like censorship and is sure to be about as effective as the War on Drugs.
The information genie is out of the bottle and unlikely to be put back easily, at least in the democratic states. Democracies are messy and hard to control. The mainstream media’s steady monopolization of news in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s brought only temporary stability.
And that monopolization was itself a product of the market. The best way to make money with a high-overhead business operating in a competitive market is to kill the competition. Newspaper publishers – who drove the media bus for a long time – adopted objectivity as a marketing tool.
“Objectivity is a standard that requires journalists to try to put aside emotions and prejudices, including those implanted by the spinners and manipulators who meet them at every turn, as they gather and present the facts. They recognize objectivity as an ideal, the pursuit of which never ends and never totally succeeds,” Steven J. Berry of the University of Iowa observed almost a decade ago. “Walter Lippmann, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and the intellectual guru of journalistic objectivity in the 1920’s, viewed it as a discipline inculcating scientific principles that can guide one to ‘victories over superstitions of the mind.'”
Lippmann had one hell of a noble idea, but the smart marketers saw in it only the economic opportunity: If the newspaper is objective, nobody will need more than one. And because we’re objective, they’ll only need us.
Pretty soon, most major cities had only one newspaper. The good part was that many of the journalists who worked at those newspapers bought into the Lippmann ideal, too. It became part of the culture.
Not that old mainstream was perfect. Objectivity is the ultimate moving target, but reporters at least tried to hold to the ideal.
Now you have sometimes have to wonder if those “superstitions of the mind” have won out over “scientific principles.”
Today anyone can be a journalist and a publisher, and there’s no telling what they might produce. And the latter can be said of a lot of what’s left of the mainstream. Mainstream publications fighting for their economic lives are facing a whole new market from that which existed only a decade ago.
It may be that the propagandists who dominated the early scene in America are rising to the fore again. Market indicators would argue that’s the case. Cable “news” is booming, led by Sean Hannity, once former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s biggest booster, on the right, and followed by Rachel Maddow on the left, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham on the right, and Lawrence O’Donnell on the left, according to The Hill.