News reporting has been under suspicion for a long time.
“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed.
If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”
.. Mark Twain
“I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.”
.. Mahatma Gandhi
“Advertisements… contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.”
.. ~Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon
.. 1819. ME 15:179
Whether it be in the printed page thrown on our driveway or the internet we look for reliable information about how the world is functioning and what we need to know for the day. But the days of objective journalism have diminished. Simply comparing the headlines of various internet news sites will reveal that unless there is a “major” event today, the news sources are not at all united on what they believe is prime news. In fact, the preferences and biases are abundant. What we have suspected but not wanting to admit is true. News agencies do not bother defending objective news and “balanced” news is sometimes lambasted by news reporters and editors alike who should know better. That secret is no longer even guarded.
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has been tracking views of press performance since 1985. In September 2011, a Pew survey poll showed,
- 66 percent believe news stories often are inaccurate
- 77 percent think news organizations favor one side over the other
- 80 percent believe news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations
When Americans were asked how much trust and confidence they have in the mass media, 55 percent responded, “not very much” or “none at all,” according to a Gallup Poll (September 2011).
But the real problem comes down to two points. The first is the incredulous way the power of the press “spins” their biases. But the second is just as worse that people buy into all of this. There’s something in people’s minds that if they see it in print then it must be true. We are so programmed for convenient truth and the less we have to think the better. Let the big news sources tell us what we are to believe, and life is so much easier. Thinking for ourselves and making up our own mind on matters are nice objectives, but seldom make it through all the controversial news bits thrown in our path.
The press holds such extraordinary power to influence how we see the world. Along with the human urge to “get with it” barters quite a dilemma. We want the big power opinions on current news. To be left out of the loop would not only be embarrassing, but also risks being labeled ignorant and not up to the level of the rest of the group. Social isolation is way too much to bear for the “masses” and most people will do whatever it takes to remain within the “herd.”
But at risk of being seen as not “with it,” please let me raise a few points. Let me pull the curtain back from the Wizard of Oz. Let me announce that the Emperor is not really wearing any clothes. News media have agendas in their reporting, “balanced” news is no longer a priority. Ignoring this reality is to pull us into unreliable orbits of our perspective on life. Handing over our judgment to these power outlets deprives us of our own ability to decide for ourselves. Blindly trusting their influence primes the vision of George Orwell’s “1984.” Let us break away and restore the stability of our own thinking.
Let me raise three key points to hopefully defuse some of the unwarranted authority handed over to these powerful media players.
A casual perusal of the headlines in all the major news sources will prove this point. Excluding days of obvious news urgency and crises, they may not bear any similarity at all in what they select as the key information you need to know.
Simple truth: there is too much news to report! Especially to fill a 24 hour, seven day week void.
Problem: Who is picking the news for us to read?
For a survey of the development and practice of Media Bias see www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_bias.
Why do people overlook this simple reality? In a high stakes capitalistic society as ours one rule will always prevail, “Money talks.” That’s what keeps things functional and moving, the motivation for income and especially the ever illusive wealth. Media does what it can to retain readers and remain profitable, just like any other business.
Remember the old time movies when the paperboy stands on the street corner announcing the big news, “Extra, Extra, Read all about it!” What a sad day when nothing much is happening to motivate people to buy his newspapers. Imagine the editors in their offices fearing the plummeting sales. They need calamities, crises and trauma upon the public to get the sales and profits moving.
Modern news media is for profit, and the profit is big … providing news-worthy items are flowing. If not, they may need to hype things to gain interest. And that task is simple. News items are plentiful. They need merely select something and run with it.
Shock journalism was once viewed as a demeaning alternative to maintaining a respectable professionalism. But today’s ruthless market competition pressures high stakes competition. Look at the big picture with discerning eyes and you will begin to wonder if media has begun competing with reality TV. The divide between responsible journalism and the National Enquirer is not as wide as it once was.
The following quote expresses just what the modern reporter really feels and the objectives they seek,
“. . . ‘balanced’ coverage that plagues American journalism and which leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge. The idea seems to be that journalists are allowed to go out to report, but when it comes to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. ‘Balanced’ is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting . . . and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.”
Ken Silverstein, “Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship” (Random House, 2008).
Do you see the hypocrisy in modern journalism? “Balanced is not fair” to whom? Silverstein is only thinking of espousing his own opinions striving for that elusive Pulitzer, not objectively providing the facts. What he ridicules as “spin” is the expressed viewpoints of the politicians that we need to know so we can make up our own minds. But Silverstein would deny our own resolve. He wants to make up our mind for us, to see things “his” way instead of risking the possibility we may arrive at a different conclusion.
“Real reporting” is exactly what we need, not to be avoided! Silverstein and his peers have replaced this with their own narcissistic sense of reality. Give us the facts and respect our ability to think for ourselves. In a trial, the witness stepping forward to present their input are asked to simply report what they saw or heard. As Joe Friday would say, “Just the facts, Ma’m.” That simple reporting of events is what we need today, not more coffee shop rigmarole from reporters who have forgotten their ethics classes in journalism school.
And he’s not an isolated case, he’s the former Harper’s Washington Editor. Welcome to modern journalism. This is what we are inundated with on a daily diet, biased opinions trying to pass itself off as valid fact.
C.S. Lewis on Newspapers
“Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.”
.. Surprised by Joy (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1955), p. 159
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, – we need never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”
Thomas Jefferson on newspapers
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 & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. . . . I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.
Letter to John Norvell, (11 June 1807)
“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
Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail (1973)
“What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to the readership or to history? If they have misled public opinion by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, even if they have contributed to mistakes on a state level, do we know of any case of open regret voiced by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No; this would damage sales. Hastiness and superficiality — these are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century and more than anywhere else this is manifested in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press; it is contrary to its nature. The press merely picks out sensational formulas.”
Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn
“A World Split Apart” — Commencement Address Delivered at Harvard University, June 8, 1978
The shipwrecked sailor had spent several years on a deserted island. Then one morning he was thrilled to see a ship offshore and a smaller vessel pulling out toward him.
When the boat grounded on the beach, the officer in charge handed the marooned sailor a bundle of newspapers and told him, “With the captain’s compliments. He said to read through these and let us know if you still want to be rescued.”