As the title suggests, this is not a paean to the press. But neither is the intent to urinate on the grave of Edward R. Murrow. Rather, the purpose is to discuss how Murrow’s progeny have gone astray, fallen into sin, hubris, and folly, richly deserving to have their asses kicked off Mount Olympus where they presume to dwell. With that charge (purpose) in mind, we will first get a few preliminaries out of the way, and then discuss the damning specifications of the charge against them. After that we will lay out a primer on what is to be done about the rascals. (They will never repent and correct themselves, so it will have to be done for them.).
We are, of course, speaking about the reporters, editors, columnists, anchors, publishers, TV talking heads, and radio producers—the ones who are habitually assailing us in a censorious tone for our manifest shortcomings--both real and imagined. (They are sometimes called the “Gotcha” Brigade.) The common assumption is that the Gotcha Brigade is so vital and necessary that they should be reflexively honored, respected, and tendered special privileges. Recently, however, there appeared a persuasive argument that things would be significantly better if all the press people had been strangled at birth. That suggestion, though appealing, sounded a tad draconian, but it did prompt some serious thought about the functions and dysfunctions of the press corps. A few general points need to be made first, and then we’ll pick up a rhetorical stick and flog them for their more egregious shortcomings.
The Preliminaries: First, and of a general nature, it is something of a mystery how the press came to be the high and most omnipotent pooh-bah, overseeing what is appropriate personal, national and international conduct. But according to the Ted Koppel Fallacy, the press is high and lifted up, smarter than the rest of us, much too grand and god-like to take sides (even on behalf of its own country), and committed only to a self-defining and grandiose “objectivity.” One is reluctant to question god-like creatures like that, but would it be unseemly to inquire just exactly who appointed Walter Cronkite and his offspring to such an elevated position? Would it be heresy of a humble citizen to inquire just how the press attained to the moral high ground? Unless there was a secret commissioning ceremony somewhere, the assignment to that elevated position in society flows from a case of outrageous arrogation.
Second, contrary to what the press believes, their special privilege, freedom of the press, did not come from God. And as they currently practice their craft, their special privilege did not even come from the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution thought the broader populace should be the ultimate sovereign, and if the broader populace was to rule well, they should have access to as much accurate information as possible. Ergo, we will need a press free to provide that quality information. Not a bad idea at all, but it is worth noting something the national press corps, in particular, seems to have forgotten: The freedom of the press is a derivative right; the right is guaranteed only because the people need good information. If the press is not providing accurate and adequate information to the public, has it violated its mandate and hence forfeited its right to radical freedom? It would certainly seem so. Freedom of the press, in other words, is not an intrinsic “good.” It is only a “good” predicated on the proper exercise of their special prerogative. Consequently we go forward in this paper confident that the press should not assume they are sacrosanct and free to cavil, spin, exaggerate and bray as they please.
Now, you say, is the press corps really deserving of a good spanking? Consider an example of how they worked over a vice president, and then consider their obnoxious nature as set out by a high status press corps insider.
Their “slip” was really showing when Vice President Cheney—who they despised--accidentally shot a friend while hunting. While his friend (the aggrieved party after all) promptly stated that it was just an accident and quickly forgave the Vice President, the press seized on the incident as a pretext to show their true colors. At the subsequent White House Press Briefing the reporters were absolutely slavering. They shouted accusations, demanded some sort of incriminating evidence, suggested a cover up, and shouted insults dolled up to sound like questions. If people like that occupy the moral high ground, it is the high ground in a festering swamp.
Regarding their behavior at press briefings, Michael Kelly, the much-lionized journalist killed in Iraq, put it this way: “As any White House press secretary can tell them, there is no hell quite so amazing as an infantilized media pack.” He likewise observed, “Also, it is no time for the American media to revert to the hysterical, silly, fear-mongering, self-centered, juvenile, and ninnyish form that has made them so widely mistrusted and so cordially detested.” Amen brother.
The trenchant comments below will highlight the various carbuncles on the carcass of the press, but first, we need to establish motivation; does the press have an incentive to abuse their position? Is a pig’s posterior porcine? In fact, there is an incentive problem built right into the business of providing the news. The nature of the press/media business dictates a huge daily demand for news: Airtime must be filled; columns must be written; newspaper space must be filled; TV news programs must have content; jobs and reputations are at stake. The pressure is on to fill that time and space, but there is not always an adequate supply of useful or interesting news to meet the demand---and scoop the competition. Reporters and editors, then, are too often motivated to embellish, titillate, hype, inflate, and even manufacture stories in order to meet the daily demand for news—and get their Pulitzer. And, of course, there is always the urge amongst them to verify their own ideological pipe dream.
In the legal world the prosecution must establish motivation to make their case. That is no problem in presenting the case against the press.
Specifications of the Charge:
Perhaps the press considers any attempt to criticize them as nothing but attempting to kill the messenger, but the following discussion of their manifest and manifold shortcomings should disabuses them of that misapprehension. Gird up your loins for a discussion of those various shortcomings:
THE CLAIM OF OBJECTIVITY: When confronted by a critic charging ideological bias, the press weenie will calmly say—with all the confidence of ignorance—that he or she is only being objective. Cow plop! This will be difficult for press types to understand, but the ideological model of reality that they initially subscribed to in order to understand reality, has been lodged between their ears, and the model automatically directs them to interpret reality as the model dictates. In other words, they will always interpret the incoming facts as the ideological model dictates. Both liberal and conservative reporters and editors will see the world through the distorting prism of their adopted ideology, and, bound by the intellectual strictures of the particular ideology, objectivity is typically beyond their grasp, let alone their comprehension. They don’t even understand that it is subjective to declare you own objectivity. Don’t let them hand you that “objectivity” crap. It is bad enough that they are deluded.
GETTING THE GOODS: The second specification of the charge is the inordinate propensity of the press to try to “get the goods” on someone, especially someone they don’t like or don’t agree with. Reporters, editors, and publishers firmly believe that a “good” story is a story that reveals, exposes, and bugles the shortcomings of a celebrity, the military, any governmental agency, a union, a church, or, best of all, a wicked corporation. Now, when a reporter goes out on an assignment, he is predisposed to file the sort of article that makes his editor salivate—a criticism or expose of someone or something. That tendency tends to skew the news, which is bad enough, but along with it comes the incentive to create a scandal, an outrage, a crime, or the most wicked of all misdeeds, a cover-up. All that is needed to expose some “miscreant” is a pretext, and if the subsequent facts don’t affirm the charge, then no problem, we will run a one-inch correction a few days later on P. 36. The injured reputation of the “miscreant” is of no real concern;
WE “GET” THEM COMING OR GOING: Since there is more demand for news than there is quality news, the incentive to exaggerate, embellish, and create news is always there, and, happily for the enterprising reporters and editors, they have found a way to double their pleasure—to “get” them either coming or going. If, for instance, the police have been strictly enforcing the law, then they can be accused of heavy-handed methods—especially as employed against the poor or come favored minority group. On the other hand, if the police back off under criticism from the press, then they are accused of laxity and dereliction. It works the same way with schools: If they are firm in their grading, the press laments of cruelty to the unfortunate children. If the schools don’t enforce the standards, then they are accused of lax and irresponsible teaching and administration. If a business does well, it may be accused of gouging or profiteering. If the business doesn’t do well and has to lay off workers, then the business is “dragging down the workers with it.” A similar gambit applies procedurally: If a designated “evil doer” foolishly opens his files to a reporter, the reporter is at leisure to shuffle through the information till he finds a juicy pretext to carp about. But if the designated evildoer withholds information, then a hue and cry arises about a cover-up or worst of all (gasp) censorship. The examples are legion, the benefit to the press obvious, and the guilty (or the innocent) get it in the neck either coming or going.
THE ACCELERATOR EFFECT: Not only do our reporters and editors need a story, they need one soon—very soon. (The edition goes to print at X hour and the term “deadline” is oft repeated in the newspaper business. And there are deadlines for TV news programs as well.) Also, there is competition in the news business, and major huzzas go to the newspaper or network that first “breaks the story.” Both those circumstances exacerbate the tendency to rush into error. The incentive is to run with the story, and run with it fast, thus scooping the competition. But the accuracy (or fairness) of the piece suffers in the process, and the readers/listeners are misinformed in the process. Recently there was a particularly egregious case of this growing out of a serious incident in Sanford, Florida The incident had a racial component, and the press salivates whenever they hear the mention of race, prejudice, or profiling. They rushed into print and broadcasting, knowing little or nothing about the case, so anxious to bugle a message about discrimination that they cast a story line that arbitrarily condemned one party, and arbitrarily sanitized the other. (They even beat Al “Tawana” Sharpton to the microphones.) The tragedy is that the public never did get the straight and full scoop from any of the major news outlets. And the deceivers in the press never did come back to the people and really clarify the situation. (The people don’t really have a right to know that.)
THE PILING ON EFFECT: No element of the press likes to left out of the action, so when a story breaks (when a presumptive miscreant is run to cover) “we” all have to get in on it. The readers or viewers don’t particularly care that newspapers and networks feel obliged to carry the same story over and over—a story the consumer may well have seen or read many times before. What is wrong with that other than the annoyance involved? To see the problem from the vantage point of the presumably guilty party,things look distinctly different. The public, subjected to a drumbeat of accusations, comes to “know” the charge must be true because it is repeated over and over. So the defendant’s protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears. (The trial was conducted in the press, and it only remains to condemn the scoundrel (victim).
THE POLLS VERIFY: Let us say that the press has stumbled on a pretext for making a charge against some person or organization, and then rushed into print before their suspicion could be fully justified. (There is an appearance of wrongdoing--don’t you know.) A bit uncomfortable with their presumption, they feel the need to somehow legitimize their questionable assertion, and so they repeat the charge several timesand then take a poll on the matter. The readers or listeners have been told over and over that there is skullduggery afoot, so when the press conducts a poll asking if there really has been skullduggery afoot, guess what the poll reveals. Hint: just as the press suspected... Then the accusing parties in the press will cite the poll as evidence that, all along, their assertion has been true because it was confirmed by a poll. It is a clever but unsavory charade: You tell the people what to think, then ask them what they think, and surprise, surprise, they “verify” what you have been telling them all along. Amazing!
THE MARVIN KALB CORRECTION: Marvin Kalb was a long-time TV press type, and occasionally he would call together some of his colleagues from the press and they would sponsor a discussion program in which he and his guests discussed accusations of press bias, arrogance, or incompetence. The press, you see, is accountable to no one, so periodically they feel they should get together and critique one another. The exercise purports to prove to the broader society (and themselves) that the press is indeed accountable, and hence a responsible and reliable source of information. (Lesser citizens and institutions cannot be trusted to monitor themselves like that, but the press, happily, is a noble institution made up of “superior” persons, and so they can make that work.) You could witness this self-regulation in practice while watching one of those programs moderated by Marvin Kalb. On those programs, a half dozen reporters gathered to lob softball questions at one another about the apparently mistaken charges of abuses and bias by the press. The discussion concluded that there might be token abuses, but not to worry, we all agree that, overall, we are doing a bang up job of fair reporting. (And the Tooth Fairy will affirm as much.) And anyone outside the press who objects to that conclusion is a fascist who is censoring, covering up, denying the people their right to know, or trying to kill the messenger. If the rest of us tried a gambit like that, they would call it whitewashing.
THE PEOPLE HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW: The people may not know it, but the press presumes to be thee guardian of the people’s interests, and the press has a habit of leveraging that assumption for their own convenience. If, for instance, the police or military are not providing all the sensitive information the reporters want, some reporters will get quite nasty and threaten a charge of a cover up. And then, if they still don’t get their way, they will wail that “The people have a right to know.” Paraphrased, “I am here representing the ultimate democratic authority, the People, and you better give me what I want. Criminal investigations, personal privacy, and national security be damned.” Searching the Constitution carefully, nowhere does it say that the authors intended to give a snot-nosed reporter freedom to jeopardize sensitive plans, programs, tactics, and investigations so he could get a story. It is just conceivable that what oft-times motivates the reporter’s demand for sensitive information is not the people’s need to know, but his need for a juicy story that will make his editor happy-- and the interests of the ordinary citizens is of nominal concern at best. (Just a thought, mind you)
I’LL BUY THAT: Every interest group is anxious to whip up popular support--and the money that goes with it. Every press organization is anxious for a titillating scandal or anything to bray about. The two are natural allies in the on-going effort to scare the bejabbers out of the public. The interest group will exaggerate the threat in order to get some publicity for their cause, and the press is happy to accommodate them because some sort of public threat is always a “good” story. Consequently, unsubstantiated charges and suspicious facts make their way into the public arena, deceiving the public. (If the African bees don’t get you, either acid rain or radon in your basement will--or my name’s not Al Gore.) The Environmentalists are particular good at this gambit; they call the tune and the press promptly picks up the fiddle.
POLITICAL/IDEOLOGICAL BIAS: Most all reporters have an ideological disposition but you would never know it from what they say. As they will quickly tell you when someone confronts them with a case of tendentious reporting, “Regardless of my personal politics, I am thoroughly objective in what I say or write.” Bologna, Bologna, Bologna! (See “I’LL BUY THAT” above for a discussion of why such a statement is folly.) Worse yet, when the great bulk of the press subscribes to one particular ideological position, you have a wholesale skewing of the news. (The people have a right to know, but they don’t need to know the facts on the other ideological side of the argument.) The reporters may throw in a sop to objectivity in order to feign objectivity, but a sop won’t “get it” if you are out to properly inform the sovereign.
TO SKEW OR NOT TO SKEW: As something of a corollary to the previous section, ideological bias can show up in yet another form. A reporter (and his editor) can ignore information contrary to their particular belief, or jump up and down about the shortcomings of those they disagree with. Either way, it skews the information transmitted to the people. Recall from the above discussion the case of Vie President Cheney’s hunting accident; no one was killed or badly injured, and it was clearly an accident, but the press screamed of it for a week, demanding explanations night and day. On the other hand, in the Benghazi incident where four Americans, including an ambassador, where left to die at the hands of savage terrorists, a huge segment of the press did not see fit to make a big deal out of it. (The incident would prove embarrassing to their ideological bedmates so best not to make a big stink about it.) Speaking of stink, what the press did was engage in the most evil of all schemes, a cover-up. We better call Marvin Kalb and have him look into it.
Summing up, The Fourth Estate is in a dreadful state. Now let us see what can be done about it.
Part 2: Attitude Adjustments:
So. indeed. the press has too often abused its privileges, but what is to be doneabout it? We would very much like them to cease and desist of their questionablebehavior, but we don't want to jeopardize freedom of the press because it is an essentialelement for a free country. What to do about the dilemma? Will it suffice to chide thema bit and give them mandatory training in the rudiments of simple courtesy? Much asthey need it, not likely. Should the government impose strict regulation on them? Onlyat risk to a free society. What can be done. then, that will deflate their inflated egos,teach them their proper role in society, and curb their excesses ... but without majorrestraints on their ability to get at the facts. Since the press won't acknowledge there is aserious problem, let alone tolerate meaningful suggestions for correcting the problem. itis up to outsiders to suggest (and if necessary, demand) some means to an attitudeadjustment by the press.
There are two basic ways to correction, one via governmental intervention and theother via self-education. Neither will enlighten and correct them completely, but we needto make a start.
What The Government Can Do:
Since inordinate government intervention is tantamount to subordinating the pressto the government, direct government involvement must be limited. There are somethings, however, that the government could decree which would help but not put thegovernment in control:
1. JournaJlism schools accepting federal monies must incorporate into theircurriculum significant instruction about the proper-and limited--role of the press in ourpolitical scheme of things.
2. Editors must be required to make a serious attempt to insure that alarmingstories and "scientific" studies emanating from (or sponsored by) interest groups arecarefully screened to assure the public is not misinformed or unduly alarmed--even if allthe space/time is not filled and a deadline is looming.
3. Publishers and TV producers will be required to state-s-up front- theideological disposition of the publication or network. Claims to "independence" willneed to be verified by evidence that there is a generous representation of both majorideologies in the manning and supervision of the news-gathering staff.
4. Writers reporting on social issues should be required to state whether theygenerally vote Democratic or Republican-or are conservative or liberal. Assertions of"independence" will be many, but should be ignored.
5. An affirmative action program for journalism schools should guarantee that nomore than two thirds of the faculty is of one (liberal or conservative) ideologicalpersuasion. Nor should the presidents all be of one ideological persuasion.
What The Journalism Schools Can Do:
There are also things that can be done by way of education. Journalism schools.tor instance, should be urged to be sure their curriculum contains generous and fairconsideration of why the press has been given its special privilege, and how to respectthat special privilege. The curriculums should be sure the students understand:
1. The right to freedom of the press as a derivative right. They were notordained by God (or The New York Times) to run the nation. That is the job ofgovernment.
2. They are not to pose themselves in an automatically adversarial posture towardgovernment, reflexively assuming a hostile stance. Report on government, yes;automatically assume the worst of government officials, no.
3. They are to guard against an insular ideological bias that censors out the viewsand arguments of those who do not "think as we do."
4. They are to understand that the ultimate test of a good journalist is a well-informed reader, not success in embarrassing some public figure in hopes of receiving anomination for a Pulitzer.
Elaborating on theneed to be added:
First, classes should include warnings that any news-gathering organizationmanned by a large preponderance of those of the same ideological disposition tendsinevitably to bias. (We all think like that around here; it must be the correct way tothink ... and those who don't think as we do must be either ignorant or evil.)
Second, student training should not only dwell on how to get a story andpunctuate it properly, but how to represent the story thoroughly and fairly for purposes ofpublic enlightenment. The perspective should be: "What does the reader need to knowto really understand what is going on?" That does not mean the reporter (editor) is atliberty to present the story in an ostensibly objective fashion, but still surreptitiously'guide' the reader toward the 'proper' outlook?" Journalism students should also bespecifically warned against the practice of throwing in a sop to objectivity in order tomeet the requirement of reasonable balance in the presentation.
Third, Logic should be re-incorporated into the curriculum. Students should cometo understand what is or is not rigorous thinking. If a journalist or columnist intends toargue a position, he should be able to do so with some intellectual rigor. They shouldunderstand that multiple accusations, insinuations, and name-calling will not suffice toconstitute a respectable article.
Fourth, reporters and editors will need to understand what is or is not liberal. whatis or is not conservative, what is or is not tar-right, what is or is not leftist. (They assumethey do, but often don't.) Good reporting on social issues requires an appreciation of notonly ones own ideological understanding of things, but the position of those of differentideological disposition. (Most all "social" writers proclaim their own independence ofthought, but are wedded [shackled?] to one particular ideological perspective.) Lackinga broad, comprehensive perspective, writers tend to ascribe the worst of motives (orignorance) to those who do not understand things according to the writer's personalideological model. With a better appreciation of what others think and why, reportersare more likely to offer up a story that is truly helpful to the reader or listener.
Fifth, at the same time. journalism professors should advise students that there isno law prohibiting the student from adopting one ideology perspective or another. Intact, most students will need to do so in order to have a model for understanding theworld around them. Students should understand, however, that adopting a particularideological perspective (model) tends the writer of a story to interpret events and realityin a particular way-a way dictated by the assumptions of the ideological model. Themodel they have adopted skews their perception of reality and facts, and they need toknow and acknowledge that. (Reporters and editors assume their own objectivity andthat they have risen above any inordinate influence from economic or political theories[models].
They do not understand-but the students should-that it is very difficult torise above the ideological models lodged between the ears, and that it is not just thelumpen-intellectuals and sophomores who are susceptible to an unsuspected ideologicalbias.)
In conclusion, it is not at all untoward to suggest that the press needs a littletutoring on manners, conceit, and their appropriate role in society. Furthermore, someantidotes to their arrogance may properly be prescribed. Be forewarned, however, thatthe prescriptions will not set well with the press. Confronted with truly seriouschallenges to their assumed prerogatives, they will: journey to the Land of Denial, wailat the thought of such "outrages," conduct two dozen colloquies amongst themselves inwhich they lob cream puffs at one another, and write a thousand peevish pieces aboutcensorship of the press and strangling the messenger. So be it. The governmentalreforms suggested above are not repressive, and they leave the journalism schools tovoluntarily correct deficiencies they should have dealt with anyway. We can haveelection reform, corporate reform, labor reform, school reform, environmental reforms,government reforms, and tax reforms. Why can't we have press reforms? Is the press soanointed, so God-like, that it is above serious criticism and reform? If the freedom of thepress is so critical to a free society, why isn't it critical to recognize and redress abuses ofthat freedom? A freedom abused is a freedom in jeopardy.
M. J. Christensen