As a graduate of journalism school, an advertising copywriter, a teacher, an author, a journalist, a political commentator and a long-time critic of media, I am horrified with the current status of journalism.
Certainly, there are brilliant and dedicated investigative reporters who work long hours, often at the risk of their own safety, to bring us the information we need to be informed citizens and voters. Many have lost their lives by reporting the uncomfortable truth about powerful and dangerous people. Just in 2019, 49 journalists were murdered around the globe (a death toll that was actually the lowest in 16 years). But while the number of journalists killed dropped in 2019, the number jailed in 2019 climbed to 289 (an increase of 16 percent from the previous year). Most were jailed in China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for daring to publish stories that were unflattering to the government and the autocrats in power.
Even in the US, Trump and his supporters continue to call journalists the “enemy of the people.”
While it is true that there are media organizations doing great harm to our nation, they are not the ones Trump’s supporters imagine. Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, Breitbart, rightwing radio, Facebook, various hate groups, and some churches are the true purveyors of fake news.
By unquestioningly repeating Trump’s statements, these media outlets regularly tell us that up is down, black is white, and false is true. Indeed, Trump and these media have led to the creation of a new industry of fact-checking that has been overwhelmed by Trump’s more than 15,000 false or misleading claims since taking office. Worse, the vicious lies about political opponents, people of color, women, gays, the poor, immigrants and foreign rivals too often lead to violence.
Even the media that have sterling reputations for accuracy have lowered their standards in their quest for speed and ratings or readership. Determined to be first to report a story, they sometimes rely on information from questionable sources. In an attempt to seem unbiased, they host guests from both major parties and permit them to engage in shouting matches filled with opinions and false information. They hire columnists who offer more opinion than fact. They seek the most sensational aspect of a story allowing sensation to overwhelm information. And, when unable to find controversy, they attempt to generate it.
The latest example is the exaggerated spat between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Apparently finding it too difficult to contrast the candidates’ ideas and policies, the media seized upon the superficial and sensational. It’s not that they truly believe that such personal conflicts matter. It’s merely because they believe sensational controversies create profits by attracting audiences. Since virtually every media platform is driven by profits, their success is measured less by accuracy and reliability than by ratings and readership. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the potential audience for television and print news continues to dwindle as more and more people “cut the cord” of cable TV and tune their smart TVs to entertainment provided by Netflix, Prime, Hulu, etc. So the competition for attention is greater than ever.
It is this thirst for controversy and sensationalism that paved the way for Donald J. Trump. In 2015 and 2016, the media was filled with everything Trump. Not because the media liked him or believed his outrageous statements. But because they felt that he would be good for ratings. At the same time, the only media attention given to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, centered around the sensational accusations her enemies promoted – accusations for which she has since been fully exonerated.
Not surprisingly, there are also legitimate reasons for media failures. Most traditional media outlets have been purchased by large conglomerates. Like all corporations, they focus on increasing profits by increasing productivity. As a result, the budgets for news-gathering operations have been slashed. Reporters are expected to do more work with less time and money. They’re forced to take shortcuts. In addition, some newsrooms have hired young editors because they’re willing to work for less. These people, though they may be talented and energetic, lack experience, perspective and the context of history.
In addition, having torn down the firewalls between the newsrooms and business operations, these conglomerates sometimes dictate news coverage that is favorable to their greed and ambition.
Despite all of this, I believe there is a growing thirst among Americans for real information. Indeed, I think the growing superficiality of television and radio newscasts has led Americans to turn to the Web and social media for information. Online, they can search the websites of traditional news operations. They can find more in-depth news from around the globe. They can find legitimate websites that compile the top stories for them.
Unfortunately, they are also exposed to an overwhelming amount of false information and fake news stories – stories generated by hate groups and foreign rivals hoping to divide us.
The Web is filled with information created by ideologues, renegades, haters, and fakers. Yet, to date, our government and the social media platforms have, for the most part, refused to police it. Under Trump, the government has even stopped tracking the lies and hate-filled diatribes posted by white supremacists and other domestic terrorist groups.
It’s long past time for Americans to demand real and accurate journalism; to expose the liars and the phonies; to hold propagandists disguised as news sources accountable (I’m referring to you, Fox News Channel); to ask the government to reinstitute a form of the Fairness Doctrine that required media to operate in the public interest or lose their license to operate.
It’s time to demand the truth.