You know, when you start an editorial and you have an outline, with subheads, it’s going to get a little out of control. But here we go:
Media is to blame.
That sentiment, stated a million different ways, but always carrying the same anger, disillusionment, and frustration, is slathered across social media on a daily basis. It doesn't matter what the topic is: Covid-19, politics, the economy, looting and rioting, bigotry, panic over any and everything. Nor does it matter what side of the debate you are on: Conservative, liberal, dismissive, frightened, conspiritorist or pacifist. Sooner or later, usually sooner, the accusation will track its muddy feet across the screen: “Media caused this” “Media wants this” “Media instigated this” …
And those perceptions, that “reality,” in the mind of the general public, is exceedingly dangerous.
But before we look at the Danger, we have to make our way through two other subheads: Definitions and Deflections.
Lets look at where some of the misconceptions and misappropriations lie when it comes to “media.” Media, when used in the above-referenced context, usually refers to “mainstream media” - by which they typically mean “cable television news,” as opposed to the Cambridge Dictionary mainstream media definition of “traditional news sources such as newspapers, television and radio.”
As my friends point out, when those comments about “the #((*#@ media” are made, they are not talking about local newspapers, they’re not talking about community radio stations, they’re not even talking – usually – about network news. The culprits for this media angst are, for the most part, the three kings of cable news: Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. Occasionally, you’ll see someone angry at ABC, CBS, The Wall Street Journal, or another traditional form of news distribution, but for the most part, it’s the Big Three.
The problem is, Cable news is not news. And yes, I literally just ducked, because I have a feeling that a bunch of people really wanted to throw something at me just then.
I could fill pages with reasons why Cable News is not “journalism,” why it is not “news” in the traditional sense of the word, but I can hear my journalism 101 professor yelling at me right now..”keep it short.” So here’s the synopsis:
Media – when used as a synonym for “journalistic news outlet,” - must conform to the pertinent definitions, otherwise it is perpetuating a fraud.
“News is that part of communication that keeps us informed of the changing events, issues, and characters in the world outside (of our personal lives),” states one definition.
“The purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments,” explains another.
“Journalists educate the public about events and issues and how they affect their lives,” says yet another.
The common thread here, is that news imparts facts. And facts are neutral. Facts can be used to support a “side” or detract from a “side,” but facts themselves do not have sides. Thus, the very fact that cable news stations, not only in public perception, but in their own missions and statements of identity, claim “sides,” makes them ineligible for the designation of news media, and unsuited for the role of journalism.
There is no such thing as Liberal News. There is no such thing as Conservative News. There are organizations that present fans with a liberal analysis of current events. There are organizations that present fans with a conservative analysis on current events. But “analysis” is not news. News is, as they say, “cold, hard facts.” Analysis, just like “commentary,” is someone’s opinion and perception of those cold hard facts. Analysis of facts is subjective; reporting of facts is objective.
Now, there are a plethora of reasons why “analysis” has become such a universal, integral and accepted part of cable news – not the least of which is the fact that, even given a nationwide or even worldwide stage, there is not enough “news” to fill up 24 hours of empty air, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Something has to fill those hours. But reasons are not justification.
Do these outlets serve a purpose? Are they useful? Yes, probably so, but since they are not "news" outlets, that answer is irrelevant to this discussion. Is it right, ethical, or excusable that these organizations incite and encourage divisiveness and emotion-based reactions through their propaganda? No, probably not, but since they are not "news" outlets, that answer is also irrelevant to this discussion.
What is relevant, is the urgent warning against any inclination - when trying to excise this non-journalistic arm of “media” from the public perception of “news” - to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
There are two types of deflection going on in the current media blame game. The first type is a “group psychology“ process, practiced by society as a whole, in which the general public respond to events, and information about those events, with dismay, anger, confusion, panic or any number number of reactions. That drama feeds upon itself - mainly via social media - until what people are responding to is other people’s responses to the original statements of fact, not the actual facts or event itself. But when it comes time to lay the blame, that middle step is always somehow forgotten and the blame lands squarely on the original messenger.
The second type of deflection is a more personal level of abdication of responsibility. It looks something like this: If Sam tells you it’s raining, and that low-lying areas may flood, and you go dig a moat around your house on the hill and buy a submarine, it is not legitimate for you to blame Sam for the Seawolf floating in your moat.
So what does it matter? What difference does it make if analysis and opinion masquerade as news? What does it matter, really, if that masquerade results in an underlying, unshakable mistrust of the public for journalism, for the press, for “media“? What does it matter if politicians, TV talking heads, and political pundits encourage the erosion of public trust in an institution important enough to have gained the protection of our founding fathers?
The danger lies in the destruction, intentional or unintentional, planned or unplanned, of the absolutely essential watchdog mandate that true “news,” true “journalism,” serves.
Yes, “news“ is about community, it is about who won the Little League softball game. It’s about the new business in town. It’s even about movie stars and their antics, but that is window dressing and curb appeal. The foundation of journalism is it’s role as a watchdog over public officials, it’s function as a magnifying glass allowing the public to scrutinize the actions of agencies instituted to serve us, and its ability to serve as a tutorial on the impact those individuals, agencies, and actions will have upon the lives of free Americans.
Journalism is government’s check engine light.
When the trust in “news” is eroded, when the public’s ability to believe the facts presented to them is erased, when information becomes the enemy, that protection will be nullified.
And that, my friends, is the thing that goes bump in the night for me.