Modern journalism: the distorted mirror
Last week, this observer opined that Communism will remain the most serious threat to representative Democracy. Actually, Communism is only our most serious external threat. We have an equally disturbing internal threat and that is the failure of our modern media to fulfill its proper function in a free society.
And what is proper function of the media in a free society? This observer contents that the proper function of the media is to search for objective reality (the truth) and report the truth without personal bias and political cant. As detective Joe Friday used to say: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
Unfortunately, those in charge of many of our newspaper newsrooms and, for sure, the four major TV news producers: ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, take a different approach. They obviously have little faith in the ability of the American public to look at or hear the plain facts and then make intelligent judgments based on those facts. As a result, many newspaper reporters, and certainly the TV talking heads, are allowed to present what purports to be objective reporting of the facts when, in fact, their stories are actually editorials disguised as straight news reporting.
At this point, a reminder: Opinion columns, such as this one, do just that – they express the personal opinions of the writer. The reader is left to agree or disagree or stop reading or do as I do and turn to Dave Berry.
Surveys taken of journalism students as to why they want to be in the news business frequently find this answer: “Because I want to change the world for the better.” Such idealism is, unfortunately, misplaced. The place to change the world is in the real world of science, medicine, agriculture, business, industry and politics. Journalism is not the real world.
The true function of the news reporter is to hold up a mirror that reflects the real world. The function of the reader or the viewer is to look at that mirror and form his or her judgments of that reality. Nowhere are these functions better stated than the motto of the Fox News Channel: “We report. You decide.”
Gratifyingly, the ratings of the Fox News Channel are going up while, for example, the ratings of CNN are going down. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) just announced a ten-percent cut in staff. Dare one hope that the public is tired of having its intelligence insulted by the political slant of the so-called Big Four and is opting for a more balanced approach to the news?
The notion of “changing the world for the better” through journalism means that so-called reporters are applying their personal judgment as to what is “better” for the world. This notion is fanned not only many professors of journalism but also by some of the media super-stars. For example, in an interview given to Brill’s Content Magazine, Ted Koppel opined that his viewers are saying: “I need help. I need you guys to be what you were always supposed to be, and that is, journalists, editors, analysts – people who can separate the wheat from the chaff. People who can give me a little bit of direction as to what I can believe and what I should ignore.”
I’m sorry, Ted, but this observer thinks you are wrong, Your true function is to deliver both the wheat and the chaff. The function of your audience is to decide which is wheat and which is chaff. When you contend it is your role to give “a bit of direction” as to what the public can believe and what it should ignore, you assume a role that, by definition, means that your personal bias and politics must intrude upon the process.
At this point, the temptation to allege a leftist-liberal bias on the part of the major media is strong; however, on that issue, let’s just say: They report. You decide.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is a former newspaper editor.