Journalism has never been completely pure, written only by objective reporters who tried to cover both sides of a story in pursuit of the truth. That is not the fault of journalism, but human nature. However, there was a period roughly from the years prior to WWII until the Internet age when journalists like Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite guided the news to a relatively fair analysis. Perhaps the apex was in the Watergate era when the investigative journalism of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein unfolded the complexities and conspiracies of the Nixon White House. It wasn’t political agendas that uncovered Watergate, but a search for the truth.
More recently, “journalists” investigated the origins of Barack Obama’s birth, avoiding the conclusive evidence that he was born in Hawaii in favor of elaborate conspiracies filled with deceptions and theories. The difference between Watergate and Birthers accentuates how the media has changed in forty years.
Since the emergence of the Internet, many of the mid-century journalistic standards have fallen. Perhaps it can be tied to the collapse of newspapers or the weakening of the broadcast networks in the face of cable competition. Perhaps it is the ability of anyone to set up their own slanted news analysis on the internet. On the Internet, the wilder the claims, the greater the chance of attracting new readers. Sensibility doesn’t sell on the net. Distorting the truth does.
In a way, news reporting has reverted back to the days of yellow journalism. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer took the growing interest in legitimate muckraking in the late nineteenth century and ran with it into sensational news stories and biased advocacies. Although Pulitzer later turned away from much of the sensationalism, the damage was done. The Spanish-American War can be attributed to Hearst riling up the American public to a war pitch that President William McKinley could not suppress. Real journalism is not supposed to make the news, only report it.
An even better comparison might be the early days of the American Republic. Small newspapers dominated the landscape, but most were tied to a party line. This is extremely similar to the broadcast and Internet news of today. Fox and MSNBC have ideological target audiences. Large Internet publishers like the Huffington Post, Raw Story, WND or Breitbart target audiences not by reporting the truth but what their audiences want to hear. Some do it with a slight bend, like the Huffington Post, and others with massive alterations of fact, like WND. News reporting in the twenty-first century has become opinion news or reality news. It is geared to shock or support one’s preconceived views, not to educate.
On a smaller level, anyone is able to blog a story or a perspective without the accountability that once existed in the twentieth century. It is all too easy to share a sensational story on Facebook, only to discover later that it was only sensational. The democratization of the news is great for awakening people from apathy. Unfortunately, it may be worse to have ignorant activism than ignorant apathy.
Over the last few years, fact-less conspiracies have arisen. There are the claims that the Bush administration was behind 9/11. Despite disproving every conspiratorial claim of the Truthers, many still hold on to the belief that the government was somehow involved. Those who doubted the Moon landings have not withered away as more knowledge has grown available. Factual information, such as that available on climate change, is ignored as those who both support it and oppose it make their own facts. Even new conspiracies, such as Barack Obama’s birth, have spread far and been accepted at times by normally clear-thinking people. The age of the Internet has brought a massive rise in confirmation bias. That is probably because it has become easy to find evidence for whatever one wants to believe.
The threat to self-governance is that highly motivated, but unknowledgeable voters does not bode well for a free society. The main issues surrounding the time of the last Republican Presidential debate highlight this point. Stories about the Presidential candidates focused on emails, arguments with news personalities or that a candidate hugged the President of the other political party. Candidates are claimed to have won the debate not because of their prowess on the issues, but their wit at cracking a joke. The real issues are given short change. Despite a crowded Presidential field that legitimately makes it difficult to conduct a debate, limiting candidates to a one minute response on complicated domestic and international issues almost mocks the true purpose of a debate, which is to inform voters.
In the long run, this has to change. The bipartisanship that once existed in places like Washington, D.C., no longer exists. Fewer and fewer issues cross party lines. Both sides have hardened their positions. A great divide exists between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. It is a divide that opens the door to those who want to lead the biases of a majority against the rights of a minority. It imperils national institutions and the American culture of tolerance. History has shown that in similar situations in other countries this scenario leads to the rise of corrupt and authoritarian leaders. It is something that we must be vigilant against. Opinion serves an important purpose at filtering the complexities from important issues, but only when impartial news is widely available so that people can think clearly on their own. Something must change in the direction that news reporting is heading. It cannot continue into the future without some universal guiding principles of objectivity or less partial analyses driven by science or reason. If the trend of opinion news continues, the future is not promising.