When a Facebook friend recently shared a news story, a woman responded by saying “Gosh, I wish I was smart enough to find news I want to read but obviously you don’t think anyone else is smart enough to find the news they want to see and make their own decisions.” She inadvertently hit upon the very thing that divides us: What we define as news.
Far too many Americans seek the news they want – news that conforms with their long-held beliefs. They dismiss any news that conflicts with those beliefs. And, far too often, they confuse news reporting with political punditry. This is at the very heart of our national problem.
Before the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Americans had a shared version of news. For those of you too young to remember, the Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was – in the Commission’s view – honest, equitable, and balanced.
When the Fairness Doctrine was ended, we suddenly saw an onslaught of radio programs and TV networks that presented opinion as legitimate news. And those very same people boosted their ratings by telling their viewers and listeners that the “Mainstream Media” are lying – that only they present the real story.
That is, in fact, what most of them present: A story.
As a trained journalist (I have a journalism degree and, early in my career, I worked as a news reporter), such people offend me. I know that real journalists spend many hours sitting through tedious meetings, poring over financial records, combing through documents, uncovering secrets and often risking their lives in war zones and dictatorships to report the truth. They are not intentionally biased. Indeed, their work is usually reviewed and scrutinized by a team of editors who are tasked with ensuring that the reports are substantiated. Even when, as humans, they inevitably make mistakes, they are held accountable. They not only offer retractions. They can be sued for defamation or libel.
The mainstream news media depend on these people.
Many political pundits and commentators, on the other hand, sit behind desks offering opinions and bias while pushing a variety of conspiracy theories not based on truth or reality. They are seldom held accountable. They are concerned about one thing and one thing only: Their ratings. The higher their ratings (or readership, or clicks) the more money they are paid.
Too often, that same goal drives politicians and their political parties. They believe that, by creating anger, resentment or fear, they can generate more support, more donations and more votes. In order to do that, they often make statements loosely based on facts. Some rely on no facts at all.
One of the all-time great journalists, Walter Cronkite, once said, “My job is not to tell you the news you want to know. My job is to tell you the news you need to know.” He also said, “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.”
If we are ever to unite as a nation, we must inform ourselves with the truth. Not just facts and opinions that support our point of view. We must make an effort to inform ourselves. We must consume news and information from journalists – real journalists. We must look at both sides of a story. We must seek the truth, wherever it leads us. And we must vote for politicians and officials who honor that truth.