The US news media were once the envy of the world. TV news gave us legendary journalists such as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley to name just a few. These were people who proudly informed Americans, exposed corruption and provided context for politics. So what happened? How did we go from Walter Cronkite to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. There is no single answer. Instead, a number of factors have led to the demise of journalism in the US. Here are the most prominent:
1- Media Have Chosen Sides: Newspapers have long leaned to one side or another. The Wall Street Journal was always conservative as The New York Times was always liberal. But despite their leanings, they at least tried to present both sides. That no longer is the case. Fox News Channel gets its daily talking points from the Republican National Committee and, since the end of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio has become more than 90 percent right wing with almost no liberal counterparts.
2 – Infotainment And Ratings: Far too many so-called “news” shows have become infotainment – more devoted to creating high ratings than presenting actual news and information. They focus on the most bizarre, sensational and macabre stories rather than news that matters. As a result, we know more about the murder trial of the day than what Congress is doing.
3 – Equating Equal Time With Accuracy And Fairness: Fearful of backlash from the party faithful, the media tend to report both sides of a political story rather than dig for the truth. I call this the “We report, you decide” syndrome. This is no substitute for actual journalism. With no reporter focused on getting to the truth, the falsehoods from one side become accepted as fact.
4 – The Horse Race Syndrome: During the run-up to elections, the news media have refused to report the truth. They are more interested in reporting the results of polls with the idea of finding a winner. As a result, we hear two disparate views of issues with no context available to help us choose a candidate.
5 – Accepting Politically-Biased Nomenclature: Republican strategists are constantly trying to win a literal war of words. For example, Estate Taxes were once widely accepted as a way of preventing dynasties in the US – so that the extremely wealthy could not pass unimaginable wealth onto their heirs. But once the GOP labeled them Death Taxes, the media picked up the term and, as a result, public opinion began to change. The same thing happened when the abortion foes changed the description from anti-abortion to Pro-Life.
6 – Newsroom Cutbacks: In the late 1970’s, the owners of news organizations began seeking greater profits. They found them by eliminating foreign news bureaus and eliminating many reporters and staff photographers. As a result, they now rely on stock photos and wire services. Reporters no longer have the time to investigate corruption or to check facts.
7 – Laziness: Too many reporters are willing to accept what they are told by one source. It requires too much effort and too much time to seek other sources or to research the issue in order to provide context. It’s more convenient to go with the story half-finished. For example, business reporters often report that US corporate income taxes are the highest in the world. What they neglect to say is that is only the stated tax rate, not the effective tax rate which is often just one or two percent. And they never report the amount of subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare received by the very corporations that complain of high income taxes.
7 – Expediency: In the rush to be first, news media no longer take the time to verify the story through multiple sources. False stories are often repeated over and over before the mistake is uncovered and, if it is, the retraction (if there is one) is scarcely noticed. This was never more apparent than with Lara Logan’s false and misleading 60 Minutes report on Benghazi. The original story was nearly an hour. The retraction was only a minute or two.
8 – Economic Self-Interest: The vast majority of our media are now owned by just 6 conglomerates. (And if the Time-Warner/Comcast merger is completed, that number will drop to 5.) These corporations are less concerned with news than they are with profits. There are no longer firewalls between news departments and corporate operations. So if a story will harm the corporation, it is too often buried.
9 – Fear Of Retribution: Chuck Todd’s recent admission about treatment of Teapublicans on Meet the Press is exhibit A. When he said that he didn’t dare challenge a Republican lie or they would not appear on the show, he was, in effect, being a whistle-blower for the profession of journalism.
10 – Overwhelming Number Of Lies: As Politifact.com found, Teapublicans tell nearly 3 times as many lies as Democrats. They tell bigger whoppers, too. It’s hard for journalists to keep up. And with fewer journalists willing to challenge the lies, the politicians keep on telling them. Eventually the lies become accepted as fact. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples. One of the most popular lies is that the Keystone XL Pipeline will create thousands of jobs. Yet independent studies show that the number of jobs is grossly inflated and that they don’t justify the environmental risks.
Despite the media’s many failings, all is not lost. There are still numerous, credible news outlets. But the best way to be informed is to actually work at it. After all, that’s what our Founding Fathers expected of us. It’s not even all that daunting. The Web can be a very convenient and useful tool. The basic rule is to never accept anything from a biased source, or even a single source, as fact. Seek out information from independent sources, as well as conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning sources. Then check the information through Websites such as FactCheck.org, Politifact.com and Snopes.com.
The very future of our nation depends on it.