Objective Journalism Does Not Entail Telling Both Sides
We have a myth in America that there are two sides to every story, which is only true with arguments and not with factual reporting.
By David Todd McCarty | Tuesday, January 12, 2021
The news is not an argument. At least, it’s not supposed to be. It’s not one side giving their opinion on the matter, and then the other side giving theirs. It’s supposed to be objective—telling you what happened and letting you decide how you feel about it. In theory anyway.
Many moons ago, back when we had a simpler media landscape due to limited technology, we had a very limited number of vehicles with which to broadcast the news. It was deemed so important, so critical to national security that we made rules for how businesses could conduct themselves using what was deemed, public airways. There were rules on fairness, honesty, and even equal access for political campaigning.
The Fairness Doctrine of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, was a policy that required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. Under Ronald Reagan, the FCC eliminated the policy in 1987 and removed the rule that implemented the policy from the Federal Register in August 2011.((https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FCC_fairness_doctrine#cite_note-Finally-1))
“I think being a liberal, in the true sense, is being nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic, non-committed to a cause – but examining each case on its merits. Being left of center is another thing; it’s a political position. I think most newspapermen by definition have to be liberal; if they’re not liberal, by my definition of it, then they can hardly be good newspapermen. If they’re preordained dogmatists for a cause, then they can’t be very good journalists; that is, if they carry it into their journalism.”Walter Cronkite [Interview with Ron Powers (Chicago Sun Times) for Playboy, 1973]
If you want to know why Fox News exists, why we are so polarized as a nation, why someone like Donald Trump can run around screaming about fake news, you can look no further than Ronald Reagan and his goal of dismantling Roosevelt’s New Deal democracy in favor of trickle-down, laissez-faire capitalism and Ayn Rand-inspired egocentric greed. He truly is the father of today’s Republican Party but there is absolutely nothing to be proud of there.
Once we allowed that there was no need to hold the news media accountable to reporting facts, we opened ourselves up to conservative AM talk radio that began to spew radical, conspiracy-minded rhetoric in the place of actual news, though it was mostly still small and localized. The advent of cable television gave us CNN, the first 24-hour news station. Up until then, we got our news of the day from the nightly news programs on one of three networks, as well as thousands of small, independent, local newspapers. Now we could turn on our television, at any hour of the day, and watch what was going on in the world. Going from one hour of programming a day to 24 was a monumental leap, to begin with, but as cable news programming began to compete with other entertainment, they had to work harder and harder to maintain viewership. Then we got Fox News and the world changed.
Fox News introduced the idea that there was a whole different world out there, an alternate reality that had been kept from the public. A world that didn’t confuse or confront you with new ideas and hard truths, but one that embraced your limited understanding as something worthy of pride, and could feed you hourly commentary that reinforced your beliefs about who and what you were in the world. It soon became little more than propaganda, state-sponsored television for the political right and the Republican Party. Coordinated messaging was now possible on a massive scale, from the somber anchors on TV, to the Congressman on the Senate floor. Even lies had gravitas when you added a chyron and an explosive graphic.
Today we are more divided than ever, with half the country getting its news from alternative sources. From Fox News, which represents the political establishment of the Right, to obscure blogs, podcasts, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels run by fringe conspiracy theorists and would-be demagogues.
We are a nation divided, polarized not just by politics, but by a sort of cultural tribalism that pits one side against the other in ways that are increasingly tempestuous and fraught with danger. So there are naturally calls for unity, for dialing down the rhetoric, for finding common ground and seeking out the things that we hold in common, rather than the things that tear us apart. That sounds great. It really does. But we are held back by our inability to govern information properly and if we don’t address it, it’s going to destroy democracy in America.
In this environment, as polarized as we are, we require a new understanding of free speech and what it means in a world without gatekeepers. The democratization of journalism, of information itself, of what we hold to be true and right, is not sustainable. Democracy has always been a fragile concept, and as hard as the framers tried, they knew direct democracy was dangerous if left in the hands of a mob. It wasn’t that the mob was inherently bad, but that it was too easily manipulated by bad actors and those who would bend its power to their will for malicious intent.
The musician Neil Young posted on his own website a few days ago his thoughts and they are being circulated on social media because in America, celebrity has value all on its own and the words of a rockstar hold more gravitas than unknown scholars or mere mortals. We might wish it to be otherwise, but it’s true nonetheless.
Young talked about his feelings of sadness and compassion, devastation and shock, at the events of the past week. But then he added, “I feel empathy for the people who have been so manipulated and had their beliefs used as political weapons. I may be among them. I wish internet news was two-sided. Both sides represented on the same programs. Social media, at the hands of powerful people – influencers, amplifying lies and untruths, is crippling our belief system, turning us against one another. We are not enemies. We must find a way home.”
There was an instantaneous gut-reaction to the phrase both sides, as it has so often been used by the political right in this country to offer whataboutism justification for their many transgressions. This idea that everyone is wrong, so no one is right. That both sides have valid opinions. That both sides, may, in fact, be evil or good, right or wrong. This stands, in their minds, regardless of whether the source for their beliefs has been manufactured out of whole cloth with the sole purpose of political gain, or whether they are backed by empirical evidence and verifiable records.
It’s been said many times in the past few years that you are welcome to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. But that is where we stand today. One half of the country living in an alternate reality of conspiracy theories, lies, manufactured facts, and craven narratives. The other side trying to figure out how to reason with someone who believes they are evil incarnate because they have been demonized by a media universe designed to foment fear in order to sell advertising.
The cynical pandering to would-be authoritarians and the subsequent profiteering by those in positions of leadership on the right is one of the most absurd, craven, calculating, and despicable acts of treason, this country has ever seen.
If we have any hope of regaining any semblance of liberty, freedom, equality, and rule of law in America, it will start with learning to regulate our understanding of free speech in a modern world. We should not be looking to censor uncomfortable or distasteful speech, but we should have laws governing the great power that speaking to wide audiences brings you.
We already agree that all speech isn’t protected. You may not yell fire in a crowded theater, when there is none, just to see everyone run. You should neither be allowed to broadcast things that are not true when you know them to be false.
As Mr. Young said, we must find a way home. But it will not come by straddling the fence.