Following the era of so-called “Yellow Journalism” from the early 1900s during which newspapers wrapped themselves in shame by focusing on sensationalism to the point of creating false stories, journalists found their better selves. After the Great Depression and World War II, journalists focused on exposing and reporting the truth. Not coincidentally, during that time period, our nation thrived. For the most part, our politicians and leaders served their constituents’ needs because the media held them accountable.
The truth was more important than readership, ratings and sensationalism.
More recently, especially following the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, our media chose a different path. They became obsessed with profits. That meant they intentionally sought out controversy and sensationalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” became their operating mantra. Real issues – those of politics and governance – were pushed to the background to be replaced by reports of crime and corruption, both real and perceived.
No longer interested in truth, the media instead focused on “balance.” Conflicting views were each handed a microphone and the “journalists” merely sat back to watch the ensuing arguments. This philosophy has now reached its zenith as demonstrated by NBC’s Matt Lauer’s performance at the “Commander-In-Chief” forum. During Hillary Clinton’s interview, he pushed her on already discredited accusations related to Benghazi, her private email server and the Clinton Foundation. Not because he thought he could find anything new of substance, but because they were sensational. On the other hand, when it was Donald Trump’s turn, Lauer asked softball questions refusing even to challenge or expose any of Trump’s many lies.
Lauer was offering viewers balance. What he was denying them was truth.
Such an approach does NOT qualify as journalism. It is mere entertainment, and not very good entertainment at that. It denies viewers the information they need to make informed decisions at the polls. It allows a liar and a bully who has done absolutely nothing to serve our nation to galvanize support. And Matt Lauer is certainly not alone. There are many other faux journalists who either hide behind “balance” or ignore the tenets of objectivity and real journalism to take sides. Worse, it encourages candidates and leaders to lie…to tell people what they want to hear without regard to reality or the facts.
To relate this to a sporting contest, it’s like a football or basketball team that has decided to commit as many fouls as possible in order to win knowing that the officials can’t, or won’t, call them all.
And things are only getting worse. Mainstream media ownership is in the hands of a very few. Thanks to Citizens United, the wealthy and powerful are able to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money to purchase elections. And on-line media has fragmented to such an extent, it is easy for voters to get one-sided “news” that panders to their ideologies.
All of this begs the question, “What can we do?”
The answer is for our citizens to exert some degree of control over the media. To demand that mainstream media replace pundits with journalists and to, once again, focus on the facts and the truth; to hold the media accountable; to demand that any organization that calls itself a news organization to operate in the public interest as judged by a bipartisan commission that includes real journalists; to acknowledge that falsehoods and partisanship do not help our nation. Indeed, they do it great harm. As was the case under the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, those media outlets that do not meet the standards of the commission should be denied their ability to operate and to collect advertising dollars.
This is not about censorship. It’s about truthfulness. We should teach our children that truth matters then demonstrate it to them.