o you know anyone who doesn’t complain about journalism?
One group screams, “fake news!” Another yells that reporters are too easy on Trump. To me, the most insightful are the ones who recoil at something else--the relentless consolidation of media ownership, largely in the wrong hands. This is journalism’s fiercest enemy.
But let me go down another path…to identify a trend long in the making. One that has done lasting damage not just to the news--but to the nation.
he producers of TV newscasts have an essential job. They gather the content available to them…assign each of those elements a certain amount of air time…put the stories in a logical order…and get their broadcasts on the air and off the air precisely on time. This is pressurized to begin with, and the juggling gets more frenzied as the news of the day evolves. There is no such thing as a concrete plan.
Among these tasks, the simplest might seem assembling the content—after all, there’s always news. But the job is not so easy. For every story, a script must be written and edited. Most require video shot in the field. Graphics and file footage might be needed. And beyond that, some days are just plain boring. Producers sometimes find themselves stirring a soup so thin they scrounge for anything to throw into the pot.
This is a job I did long ago, so let me explain one way producers back then used to deal with a slow news day. We’d send a reporter and cameraman out on the street to video-ambush pedestrians. We’d then toss these citizens softball questions like, “who do you support for mayor,?”, or, “who do you like better this year—the Giants or the Jets?” The camera would do the rest. No reporting necessary. It was simple, fast and cheap—and it filled time.
But then, the problem arose. Almost invariably, there would be substantially more responses for one answer than the other. So now what do you do? If you faithfully represent those lopsided responses proportionately, you’ll be accused of bias. (And anyway, how representative is a sample size of ten?) Thus, the easiest solution was “balance”—airing, say, three responses from each side. Everyone’s happy.
We thought this was “objective”. After all, it looked fair. But the deed was done.
ears later I was invited to lead a seminar on reporting at a national journalistic think tank. And my main message to the group was this: “forget objectivity!” I explained this is too often a synonym for fake “balance”, and often creates a manufactured end leading to false conclusions. Instead, I urged them to seek “truth”—the underlying reality supported by first hand observation, data and honest testimony. “Do that!”, I said. “Your job is not to make everyone happy.”
Well, that was a jarring call to arms, especially in those days. I certainly didn’t make everyone happy. Jettisoning “objectivity” was not well received by the organizers. I was never invited back.
Which actually didn’t surprise or offend me. Because in those days, I acknowledged that there were honest and defensible viewpoints presented on both sides of most issues in the public eye. Those viewpoints tended to be voiced by sincere brokers. And anyway, there was a federal law for broadcasters called the “Fairness Doctrine” that mandated equal coverage on key matters of public importance. The underlying fear was that a broadcast station…or ownership group…could purposefully swing opinion by effectively covering only one side of a debate—just as some newspapers did. That didn’t seem proper for a medium as pervasive and persuasive as TV.
...FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine. People yelled, but Fairness died.
So, that doctrine guided us—until it didn’t anymore. In 1987, a Ronald Reagan-packed FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine, amid charges that it violated free speech. Congress recoiled and voted to revive it---but Reagan vetoed that bill. People yelled, but Fairness died.
And in the end, it may not have mattered anyway. By that point, CNN had established something called “cable news”, which was beyond FCC control because it was transmitted on cables rather than over the publicly-owned airwaves.
Then, by the end of the 90’s, the internet began making a mockery of all forms of “objective” newsgathering and reporting.
And today, some troll in Russia might be writing the news you read and trust, without you knowing it. And as if that weren’t enough, technocrats have now built artificial intelligence which can craft fully convincing stories that are 100% false—facts, quotes and conclusions, all deliberately invented. No human assembly required.
t’s not surprising that significant parts of the population today will swear that either Fox News or MSNBC is just making things up. And they believe the same thing about traditional broadcast networks, and almost all print and online publications. Who do you trust?
Donald Trump has made all this demonstratably worse by claiming that not only are factual reports not factual…but that even the fact-checkers testing those facts—are lying.
But we can’t lay this all at his feet. Beyond technology and tautology, the media have voluntarily (if unwittingly) formed their own circular firing squad.
Here are a few of the missteps:
Non-verified sourcing. At one time, a reporter got ‘scooped’: if a rival journalist on the same beat broke a story the first reporter didn’t know about, it was at least embarrassing—and if regularly repeated, career-threatening. No more. The sense of competition disappears when someone says the words, “it’s being reported…”. A news organization doing this forfeits claims to truth, because it doesn’t really know the answers itself. If you don’t demand that your reporters find out the facts firsthand…you could just be repeating someone else’s mistakes. The saga of Jussie Smollett is a case in point.
Unidentified opinion. Any reputable newspaper has long separated the presentation of factual news stories from someone’s opinion about that news—hence, the ‘editorial page’. Once, even TV newscasts would segregate and clearly label opinion. No more. The free granting of opinion power to TV anchors, particularly on cable, helps fuel the desired dramatic conflict that drives viewership. But it also invalidates the purported truth spoken by that anchor and his or her network—because how do you know where one ends and the other begins?
Live shots. With the proliferation of satellite transmission in the 1980’s, reporters gained the ability to regularly report news live from the field. Fires, crime scenes and political protests could be witnessed in real time. This increased the sense of drama…but at the same time prevented any editor from knowing exactly what the reporter was about to say. The old adage, “everyone needs an editor”, is never more evident than when a reporter is talking live on location. It’s difficult for the reporter, and frequently if inadvertantly becomes a disservice to the cause of accuracy and understanding.
One-man bands. This is the terminology for a single person acting simultaneously as reporter, researcher, videographer, editor and even live shot correspondent. To save money, jobs once manned by as many as a half dozen people are now assigned to a single (and very often novice) human. How well do you think that serves journalism?
Consolidated ownership. Opinion becomes even more threatening when it’s mandated by an ownership group across multiple outlets…or when those ownerships simply choose to kill off outlets. (See more here on the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and Digital First Media.) Conservatives vilify Jeff Bezos for his purchase of the Washington Post—even though Bezos is the world’s richest capitalist. It’s a false flag in any case, as Bezos appears to be hands-off editorially…in contrast to the persistent advocacy of Rupert Murdoch at Fox, and numerous vulture capitalist newspaper and TV station ownership groups.
here is no magic potion that will cause everyone to tell the truth. Nor is there one that will compel everyone to accept the truth, even when they see and hear it.
But a functioning democracy requires a free press to investigate and report reality—not someone’s personal “take” on reality.
Thus, to this day, “objectivity” is journalism’s wrong turn. There are underlying truths, and they must be steadfastly unearthed by accomplished reporters—that is, if America wants to stay America.
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