"Professional journalism’s recent struggles have much to do with the internet, innovation and economics; but the profession is also suffering because the mainstream media have largely forsaken the hard, investigative pieces that make enemies of the powerful."
Matthew Harwood, "World of Paine." Columbia Journalism Review. June 12, 2009
So what's the 4th Estate these days? And how's it doing?
Recently I emailed a Politifact webpage link (tinyurl.com/l4aa6qd) to a friend, providing a look at 169 claims made by various Fox News pundits, giving the claims grades ranging from true to pants-on-fire lies. Sixty percent ranged from mostly false to pants-on-fire lies. In each case, a fuller story and a list of sources is provided.
Politifact.com is a fact-checking, Pulitizer-winning project of the Tampa Bay Times and affiliates to examine claims made by politicians, lobbyists and the mainstream media. Could be wrong, but I think it's a good journalism cop. At least, as it involves what Donald Trump would call “Fake News” — which he defines as any journalism that musses his hair-do. Fox News is careful not to.
My friend's verdict was that, OK, the “other” mainstream media made “hundreds more” false or misleading claims (without providing examples.) His solution is not to be a skeptic who takes time to do what fact-checking he can, but to be a cynic. Something like, “You can't believe anything these days. It's too much work to check. And who can you trust anyway.” (I didn't ask whether he voted, for whom, and why.)
I understand his cynicism. In our wearily divided country. It can be tempting to sit on the sidelines and ignore or grumble. However, to survive, a democratic republic needs not just an accurately informed people but an involved people. A free press (now called media) is critical for that. Entertainment and consumerism don't and won't cut it.
Today, thanks to the blessing (or curse) of the internet, we can all be journalists by some definition and to some extent. We can email or construct a personal website. Of course, emails are commonly sent to those who agree with us. Websites are mostly viewed by fellow believers. You've heard the term “social media.” The internet at least seems a safer place than the local newspaper which everybody in town can read — and snicker about.
What we are saying is that social media deliberately and conveniently targets echo chambers. Echo chambers reinforce what Eric Hoffer called “true believers” who hear or see only what supports what they want to hear or see. Email and internet websites are a quick and inexpensive way to communicate. Today's sophisticated think-tanks are skilled at compiling lists of true-believe audiences and filling their in-boxes with calculated propaganda, usually without identifying the original creator. Websites commonly track those who visit their pages, and insert pop-up ads to entice visits to other related echo-chambers — who do the same.
As journalism, mainstream publication has a distinct plus. Such reporting or opining has a broader and more diverse viewership or readership. Consequently, it is more to debate at the local coffee shop, the college history or political science class, the break room at work, or when your senator or representative comes to visit local voters. (If you're not too busy to attend.)
Mainstream journalism is more accountable and responsible than echo chambers. That's not to say mainstream journalism is faultless, but it's more likely for mainstream journalism to pay a price for being wrong. I'm reminded of an old adage: “Doctors just bury their mistakes, lawyers let them go to jail. Journalists print them and everybody will have access to their screw-up or lie forever.” They might lose their job, take a pay cut ... or be called out and embarrassed in the public arena.
Today, truly independent mainstream journalism faces a big battle, both on the national scale and the local. Nationally, mergers of television corporations which are increasingly common might result in not just less fact-checking but less civic responsibility — especially when profit outweighs the risk of telling the truth to power. And, don't think it doesn't reverberate locally.
Few have summed it up better than Julie Reynolds, writing for the Nation Magazine:
“The most commonly cited culprit for the decline of America's newspapers is the internet and the assumption that no one needs to pay for news anymore. But simple capitalist greed is also to blame. Since 2004, speculators have bought and sucked dry an estimated 679 hometown newspapers that reached a combined total of 12.8 million people.” — Vulture Capitalists Devour the News. (Oct. 16, 2017)
More profit doesn't equate to better journalism, nationally or locally. Often the opposite.
Bob Hooper, a fourth-generation western Kansan, writes from his home in Bogue.