Is the Free Press Failing Us?
By William Katz
Are we getting news from the mainstream media, or are we getting something less — and less valuable?
The face of journalism has changed in the last half century. A hardscrabble trade has turned into a profession, with virtually all its practitioners college graduates, many with advanced degrees from the “best” universities. On the surface, this would appear to be good. Who could be against more education for people who claim that they are our “eyes and ears”? But the practical result has been a profession of journalism that reflects the political and social attitudes of the institutions that trained it. Our universities, especially since the 1960s, have leaned heavily toward the liberal. Their Middle East studies departments are usually anti-Israel, in part a reflection of the overall tone of their universities and the fact that some professorships are subsidized by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.
We recently learned that employees of one news organization gave 80 times more in campaign contributions to Barack Obama than to John McCain. We know from study after study that journalism staffs lean strongly liberal. That would not be a problem if the tilt were restricted to the editorial page, but it is not. The overwhelming liberal representation in news departments has an inevitable effect on news reporting. When virtually an entire editorial staff sees the world basically the same way, how could it not? Who is there to challenge it?
And we must add to this slant, brought on significantly by the hiring of many journalists from the same colleges, a new definition of the ethics of journalism, one that started taking form amid the tumult of the 1960s. At one time the ideal of news reporting was to report the facts - who, what, when, where, why and how. But the modern, “educated” class of journalists has expanded its mission, beyond news reporting, to “making a difference.” To these journalists it is not enough to live by the mantra, “we report, you decide.” They believe there is a higher truth that they understand, in part because of their educations, and that this higher truth must be included in their reports. Journalists, once the low-paid scrappers, have joined the elites, and they have changed the definition of what they do. To many critics they have distorted journalism, leading to widespread public distrust. In the 1960s this new way was called “the new journalism.” To many, it’s really an elegant, polished form of an older, biased journalism that 20th-century media educators tried to combat.
There is, of course, a legitimate place for interpretive journalism, the journalist explaining the meaning of a story to less-informed readers. But interpretation must be conducted with great discipline, under the tutelage of experienced editors who can spot the line between interpretation and advocacy. When the editor does not care about that line, true journalism starts to die.
We are seeing a decline in the number of newspapers. Many well-known papers have closed, others are in jeopardy. The conventional explanation is that this has been caused by the rise of cable news systems and the internet. But could not another reason be that the 46% of Americans who did not vote for Barack Obama are skeptical of once-trusted names? On television, the largest gainer has been Fox News, an outlet that clearly gives conservatives a greater voice than they’ve had in the older news organizations. The biggest losers, in terms of viewers, are the “traditional” news networks, whose anchors have, on some occasions, made plain where their biases lie. And it’s not on the right.
The potential for a sub-standard press to create a disaster is substantial, for the power of journalism now is greater than it has ever been.
News outlets have a reach today that earlier generations could not even have imagined. Many of the worst examples of what used to be called “yellow” journalism - distorted, sensational, exploitive - had very little impact on public or policy because journalism at one time was so localized. New York might have had some disgraceful newspapers, but no one outside New York read them, and the power brokers had a couple of fine publications, like the old New York Times, to balance the screamers.
There was no internet to spread the headlines of one newspaper, and no newspaper had national reach. There was no television, so there were no newspaper journalists to fill out the panels of interview shows and advertise their papers’ names.
The essential localism of the press was demonstrated dramatically in World War II when the Chicago Tribune, in an act of supreme irresponsibility, headlined the fact that the United States had broken the Japanese military code, JN-25. The revelation could have had a devastating effect on our war effort by alerting the Japanese to change that code. But our intelligence people made the calculation that, although it was a major newspaper, the Tribune was read only in Chicago, and they guessed, hoped really, that Japan had no spies in Chicago. They were right. Japan never became aware of the Tribune’s story, and continued using the same code. The Tribune billed itself, under its name on the front page as “the world’s greatest newspaper,” but its world was essentially Chicago. So any damage it did was localized.
It was broadcasting, of course, that changed the reach of journalism. We have seen that a single television report can alter history. In 1968, CBS’s Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam and pronounced the war unwinnable. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s response was to comment to aides that, if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the war. Such national, even international power, in the hands of journalists, had been unheard of in previous wars. Since the late fifties and early sixties, thanks to broadcasting, cable systems and, later, the internet, we truly have developed national news outlets with enormous power and influence.
But if the press were doing its job, and doing it well, it would not matter that individual news outlets have such clout. The issue is that many people believe the press is not doing its job very well.
Concern about the quality and ethics of the press is as old as the press itself, and possibly older. The Ninth Commandment - “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” may well have been the first statement of media ethics. And press scandals have been a commonplace in American media history. William Randolph Heart’s New York Journal whipped up sentiment for war against Spain in the late 1890s, and, when war finally came, screamed, “How do you like the Journal’s war?” Americans liked it.
The derring-do of the “newspapermen” of the past is largely gone. The image of the reporter - creased suit, stained shirt, alcohol on his breath, with a faded card saying PRESS stuffed into the band of his beat-up hat, is much a relic of another time. Journalists today tend to be polished, reasonably well paid - even lavishly paid in some cases - and usually behave well in mixed company. But the slant they have brought to their publications and broadcasts, combined with the change in the very self-definition of who they are and what they do, have turned journalism into a troubled profession, one that can easily abuse the very freedoms it enjoys.
In Iran, we have been witnessing, as James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal calls it, “journalism without reporters,” as ordinary citizens report from a country that has banned foreign journalists. Americans are accepting the citizen reports, clearly a major development in the reporting of news, and a blow to a profession that has consistently argued that only it possesses the special skills to report and interpret events.
Can journalism survive? Yes, of course. There will always be news reporting. But the very reach of modern journalism has exposed it to a new scrutiny. There are cures for its problems, but they may require a generation to take hold, and would have to include new, more neutral hiring practices.
We should not be too pessimistic. Media deficiencies have been overcome before. For personal smears, few examples today compare to the assaults on political figures, including Thomas Jefferson, during the Revolutionary War period. Among other things, Jefferson was accused by a journalist of “dishonesty, cowardice, and gross personal immorality.”
We built a memorial to him in Washington anyway.