Press: Truthful, not neutral

posted by Jeff | Friday, July 22, 2016, 4:00 PM | comments: 0

I've been extremely disappointed in the mainstream press during this election cycle. I think the bizarre rise of a narcissistic demagogue like Trump is something shared by a willfully ignorant public and the press. I can't do much about people who want to be ignorant (and endorsing a human who is a racist misogynist just because he "speaks his mind" is most certainly ignorant), but I'm perfectly content to lay into the people who aren't doing the work necessary to be called "journalist."

The other night, Christiane Amanpour, of CNN International, appeared on The Daily Show and nailed down exactly the problem with the press. She said there's a difference between being truthful and being neutral. Correctly, she points out that being neutral implies moral equivalency between two sides. Equivalency, by extension, grants legitimacy. That's the thing that I've been trying to articulate. Keep in mind that I'm taking about "real" news outlets, like TV network news (not the abomination that is cable "news"), the big newspapers and stuff picked up by the syndicated services.

Is truth surfaced elsewhere? Yes, but not in the places that one typically would go to for news. Countless blogs that pander to a particular political orientation do this, but they only do so when it suits their echo chamber. Comedy and entertainment shows like The Daily Show also do it, with a somewhat better record of bipartisan shaming, even if the level of batshit crazy has certainly peaked on the right. But the problem is that we used to rely on Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw to be the people who set the standard, less interested in being neutral and indeed looking for truth.

Something interesting happened in the democratization of media that was the opposite of what I expected. Before the Internet, there was a certain amount of trust placed in the press because it was scarce. There were a limited number of TV licenses, and it wasn't cost effective to have more than one newspaper in most markets. While this scarcity seems like a bad thing, there was a sense of responsibility among the practitioners of journalism to uphold a sense of truth. That's not to say there wasn't a certain amount of bias (we are talking about human beings, after all), but there was definitely a desire to be truthful and not neutral.

The Internet, along with virtually unlimited cable channel availability, made the scarcity problem go away. It also made it hard to recoup the cost of real journalism as the audience fragmented, which gave way to talking heads that were paid to give opinions. Many organizations focused on a particular faction because they could make it profitable, the most obvious example of this being Fox "News." Pandering to an echo chamber is lucrative, as it turns out. The remaining players, especially network TV news, lost their way to being neutral, not wanting to be lumped in with the cable news and blogs. Neutral isn't what we need. If it smells like bullshit, then call it that.

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