Making Journalism Great Again
A new year is upon us, and I am keenly aware of the Fourth Estate’s four New Year’s Resolutions for 2020: (1) get Trump; (2) get Trump’s friends and family; (3) ridicule anyone who has voted or would consider voting for Trump; and (4) protect the Democratic Party from scandal. If the “free” press can do this while impersonating the virtuous hero withstanding onslaught from the impenitent pretender in the White House, then all the better. There is nothing they like more than playing Saint George to Trump’s dragon.
They’ll need to dig deeper if they expect any of us to take them seriously ever again. This isn’t a “one-too-many Christmas cookies requiring a jump on the Peoloton” kind of resolution year. This is a full-blown “been drinking Christmas cocktails since November 9, 2016, and desperately need an intervention” moment for the press. Journalists keep leaning on the imaginary crutch that their blown credibility stems from one lone man in the country calling them out for their fake news from his Twitter account. Chris Wallace has gone so far as to claim that there has never been a more dangerous time for the First Amendment than when the President of the United States exercises his free speech. To save the press, we must regulate who is allowed to speak. Finally, a license journalists can get behind!
If the ones with journalism degrees did some investigative reporting, they’d discover that we backcountry folk simply find their prose unconvincing. They don’t have to visit Sharyl Attkisson’s long list of media malfeasance in the Trump Era, although that would be a good start for a journalist on the road to recovery. What might be illuminating for the select congregation of the Fourth Estate, however, is if they sat down, red felt-tip marker in hand, and reread the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post for every day from this last year, circling each headline that is not entirely, one hundred percent accurate. If they did so, they might be amazed at how much red ink covers the graffiti of record. It’s an astonishing exercise. You would think that the reporters writing the stories were, like meteorologists, predicting tomorrow’s news, rather than recording for posterity known facts and affairs. It is said that gross inaccuracy should be tolerated in the news business because reporters, even when very wrong, manage to reveal important unknown events when allowed to “chase a story” like a detective unearthing a clue. When you flip through a year’s worth of pages now bleeding scarlet red dye, though, it is not courage but shame that comes to mind. How many red-encircled headlines should be endured before reaching the conclusion that this is not “news” but speculative fiction or straight-up propaganda? Is there a certain percentage of inaccuracy that we could all agree is impermissible? Would coastal newspapers still feel haughty if they had to print disclaimers below the fold stating that forty percent or more of what you are about to read might later be proven to be false? Is it possible to peddle so much false information but still take umbrage at being called “fake”?
I suggest four different resolutions for the press this year: (1) Headlines should accurately encapsulate facts that form the crux of any given story. It does me no good if your headline is describing the third sentence of paragraph six or scraps the newsy part for a misleading editorial in headline form. Headlines matter. Sometimes they are all a busy person has time to read. Sensational headlines not backed up by the sentences that follow are straight-up lies. (2) Anonymous sources are bunk. Testimonial evidence is only as powerful as the perceived credibility of the witness. Most of the time, we see your anonymous sources as successfully using you to push a story, rather than the other way around. Anonymous sources should be exceptional aberrations, not the norm. If you can’t allow us to evaluate someone’s reputation for truthfulness or motivation for falsehood, that person better be providing life-and-death information while behind enemy lines. Otherwise, they are pushing a narrative, you are their willing mark, and we are an audience being manipulated, not informed. (3) When you ignore this and use anonymous sources anyway, stop giving your secret quote-givers special nonsensical titles. When you say “high-ranking Pentagon official,” I know you want me to think “admiral,” “general,” or “Secretary of Defense,” but most of the time you mean somebody who ranks slightly higher than fifty percent of the millions of employees who work somewhere in our vast national security apparatus. “Current or former White House aide” should mean one of the five people actually in the Oval Office during the meeting in question, not some disgruntled out-of-power political operative who last relished White House privileges in 1996. (4) Expert sources matter, too. Strangely, you think we see a “Dr” before a name or “PhD” after it as some holy affixation giving that person authority. We don’t. You may think all scientists are the same, but we know that engineers and chemists are not equal to gender-study sociologists and peddlers of Marxist revisionist history. If you pass off an ethnographer as an expert in the effects of carbon dioxide emissions, you are lying. If you use Howard Zinn as your expert on American history, you are lying, too.
The coasts are fond of telling us that “democracy dies in darkness.” Here in the Great Middle, though, we have long known the more important truth: “Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”