…and a pox on both houses is often not journalism.
As a citizen journalist I’ve been down this road before. Years ago, at a small community journalism project I found myself covering the political upheaval a new mayor brought to town. There were daily arguments between the local political players about what was and was not legal within the state’s revised statutes that governed third class cities in Missouri.
I took to the statutes myself researching each issue myself. While always trying to be impartial, I frequently found it impossible to project that image. This was because one side of the various arguments was nearly always wrong. That’s not my opinion, it was a matter of law. They were consistently violating the statutes that governed and limited their political roles (it was obvious to anyone who read them). All the while they repeatedly said they were right and everyone else was wrong but never supported those claims. Ultimately the courts proved them wrong repeatedly, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal defense fees to the city. Ultimately a successful recall election brought the issue to a close.
The problem I ran into back then was that it’s hard, if not impossible, to convince people who support one side in politics that you’re not biased when you’re repeatedly writing about their side being wrong. No amount of evidence can convince zealots. The negative feedback can drive you to dig deep, looking for something that’s wrong with the opposition so you can show “balance”. However, all you’re really doing is obfuscating the truth. The truth is not biased.
There are always stories where the two (or more) sides of individual issues have valid points. When writing about these issues it’s a matter of journalistic integrity to give each point of view equal weight. However, when the position of a side is complete invalid (as with the community journalism example above) journalistic ethics needs to take precedence. Journalists are supposed to be our fourth estate , the linchpin of democracy. The truth should always be the lead.
Sometimes right and wrong is clear. When one side is misrepresenting the law, hiding the truth, or just plain lying giving them equal weight is not journalism, it’s pandering, it’s misleading, and it’s certainly not informing the public. We see this more and more with television news coverage. This happens because politicians threaten not to come on their show again if treated “badly”. News Directors fear losing ratings to other channels if they can no longer get the players on air. That’s not journalism, it’s commerce, you should have been a banker.
Worse still, news broadcasts have taken to making agreements politicians before they appear on their show. They will agree not to question what the politician says, bring up particular issues, etc. They do this more and more and not just nationally. The mayor referenced above appeared on a local broadcast where she made statements that were clearly untrue but was called out by the anchors. When I challenged the “professionals” on this they admitted it. They told me they had to agree not to question her statements or she wouldn’t have come on. Apparently, getting her on their broadcast was more important and actually getting the information correct.
“The measure of a reporter’s life is not how many prizes has he won or how much money has he made. The measure, is how much his readers have learned.” – Donald Graham, chief executive and chairman of The Washington Post
Failure to clarify the truth, in an effort to increase your market share while masquerading as being balanced or impartial is not journalism. This approach is taught in no J-school; quite the opposite actually. It is the job of journalists to ferret out the truth and inform the public. That’s what the fourth estate is all about. Failing to do so makes them a salespeople not a journalists. When they do this they fail the American people and frankly should be ashamed. Yet they are not, as the recent dust up with Chuck Todd of NBC made clear.
The current government shutdown is another example. Too many media outlets are painting this as the inability of the two parties to work together. They are ignoring the reality that this is an unheard of extortion attempt that threatens our entire legislative process and our Republic as a whole. With few exceptions they are so busy trying to be “balanced” they are failing to cover major stories within the story like the fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major ally of the Republican party, came out strongly against the shutdown and asked Republicans to end it and the damage it is doing to the country immediately. This doesn’t fit into their “they’re all to blame” narrative, so it doesn’t get covered.
This failure is made worse by the major media’s unwillingness to call Republicans on the misrepresentations and outright lies about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that have flooded the airwaves and pipes. Doing so it not hard as the ACA is now a matter of law. All a journalist has to do is research it to see who’s telling the truth. But they don’t. The result is a public so poorly informed they can’t see the benefits of the program through the smoke screens and can’t even see the additional lunacy about this shutdown, the fact that the ACA is funded differently and as a result it’s going strong and not impacted by the shutdown.
The Truth is not biased. If professional reporters are unwilling or unable to report it as such then they really need to stop misrepresenting themselves as journalists and their broadcasts, websites, and print editions as news. Woodward and Bernstein (pictured above) of Watergate fame, are the pinups of aspiring journalists. These men put it all on the line for the truth, repeatedly. Somehow most of today’s so-called journalists have chosen to abandon the path laid out by Robert and Carl and have instead chose to take the route of Billy Mays.