The analysis below was preceded by Part I: Signature Significance. I suggest reading it first. After listing and commenting on several recent examples of news media bias and incompetence, the post ends with the Ethics Alarms starting point for ethical analysis:
What’s going on here?
What’s going on is pretty terrifying. There is literally no major news media outlet that isn’t biased and untrustworthy, and the profession does not appear to care. Is it denial? Is it terrible training? Is it a misguided sense of mission? Arrogance? Whatever it is, it is res ipsa loquitur–it speaks for itself.
Don’t argue that the news media isn’t always wrong or constantly allowing partisan bias to skew its reporting: the point is the same as what Ethics Alarms explained in its Snopes post. Once bias is manifest, the reliable reporting must occuring spite of that pollution, and there is no way for the public to know when it is being informed according to proper journalism ethics, and when it is being manipulated. The examples above are egregious. They would not have been permitted even 20 years ago, and yet now they are.
This doesn’t require much acumen to spot the problem, or elaborate measures to address. Look at the examples in Part I. How hard is it to figure out that once a reporter has been shown to be colluding with one party over another, it’s “Bye-bye and welcome to the baby zoo animal beat!” If it is so impossible for a Sunday news show to find four expert commentators who aren’t in Trump-freak-out mode, it’s time to upgrade the potential guest pundit list. When an anchor wildly mistates a fact like the McConnell quote that has been repeatedly debunked, 1) correct it, 2) apologize, and 3) give her a few days off without pay. How hard is that? It’s not hard, unless the entire profession is so devoid of ethical training and habits that it literally doesn’t know how to be honest, objective, fair, competent and responsible…you know, as in trustworthy.
Professions are obligated to police themselves. It shouldn’t be a conservative media watchdog site like Newsbusters that reveals Camerota’s unconscionable repetition of the long-debunked claim that Republicans vowed to obstruct Obama “from Day One”, it should be CNN’s competitors, or CNN. Brian Stelter, CNN’s own media watchdog, didn’t report on any of these episodes, because he has been dedicated to playing defense for his network, denying that news media bias exists. On October 16, just before another Wikileaks dump showed how many mainstream media journalists were regarded by the Clinton campaign as allies, Stelter engaged in a long sneerfest mocking the idea, which he attributed to Trump, that the news media was biased against Trump and trying to elect Clinton, beginning with…
Corrupt media. In Trump’s world, journalists are really just Clinton campaign workers in disguise collaborating with her in an attempt to rig the election. This is not just false, it’s ludicrous and it’s damaging. But you know what, his current conspiracy theory is ripped from these pages, the pages of the right wing website of Breitbart News. It says right there, the press is colluding to elect Hillary… what do we even say? How do we prove that we are not all conspiring?
Within a few days, we learned that CNN’s Donna Brazile leaked questions to Hillary Clinton. It reminded me of when George Will wrote a column ridiculing “The China Syndrome” as Hollywood anti-nuke hysteria, and The Three-Mile Island disaster occurred the same week. The difference? Will admitted that he had been proven spectacularly wrong. But here’s a sample of how Stelter summarized the year in journalism in an essay in CNN’s book on the 2016 election, “Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything”:
“[Donald Trump] was a one-person driver of ratings and readership and a serious menace to press freedom…What do journalists really care about? What makes us tick? Contrary to Trump’s public claims, it’s not a desire to elect Democrats … And, at least in the mainstream press, it’s not ideological. While many reporters lean-to the left in their personal politics, they are by and large driven by a desire to cover a great “story,” to get scoops, to beat the competition.”
No, you unforgivable hack, the threat to freedom of the press is you and your colleagues who abuse it and betray their duty as professionals.
What about Fox News, whose name was notably absent from the accounts in the first part of this post? We know Fox news is biased; it tries to be biased. It exists because the rest of the mainstream news media was biased and has become more so. If the rest of the news media was fair and competent, Fox would be a laughingstock, but although laughing is part of the way the left-biased news media tries to bury news it finds inconvenient, it doesn’t work any more.We know that the other sources are just as biased, but don’t admit it.
Fox had a great last quarter in 2016, and it should be obvious why. More of the country is conservative than liberal, half the nation voted for Trump, and if the left-biased sham news organizations irritated members of that half, they had but one echo chamber to go to. The other half of the country divided itself up among the more numerous echo chambers trying to elect Clinton and cover for Obama. I won’t watch Fox News. It is untrustworthy. No news network that gives a forum to people like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly is trustworthy. (Replace those names with Al Sharpton, Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell, and that’s MSNBC.) No network run as a personal harem like Fox News was under founder and CEO Roger Aisles is trustworthy. Every time I see one of those exploited bleached blondes tarted up as if news show is the equivalent of an escort service, my gorge rises.
Normal Americans with typical responsibilities and lives cannot be informed enough to be competent citizens the way the ethical standards of journalism have been allowed to deteriorate. My job requires me to try to keep informed, and that means relying on partisan internet sources to check biased stories from the other side, then checking on the checkers. It’s exhausting, and still no guarantee of getting the facts. Nevertheless, journalists, except for a rare few with integrity, deny that a problem exists. (So do many of you, and that doesn’t help.) No wonder so many rely on comedy commentators, who employ no ethical standards whatsoever, and the sewer of social media for their news.
The solution is straightforward, but elusive. It requires major, respected, non-partisan figures in the journalism field to declare in shockingly clear terms how far the profession has fallen, and the urgency of journalists returning to core principles. The profession needs to agree on affirmative steps that will encourage trust no matter what a citizen’s own biases are. Those steps must begin with a condemnation of past practices and breaches of professionalism and fairness, such as the New York Times declaring last Fall that it would slant its coverage to defeat Donald Trump; the Boston Globe publishing a fake front page describing a dystopian future under a President Trump; and allowing journalists who collude with elected officials to keep their jobs. The process would include strict policies about misinformation, with accountability, transparency, and fearless self-criticism. The solution would involve an admission that an organization that is 95% progressive /Democrat cannot possibly function objectively as reliable reporters, and that news room diversity requires more than EEOC categories. It would require independent, non-conflicted, proactive and fearless ombudspersons—we HAVE to come up with a better gender-neutral word that that—who have no fealty to the organizations they are charged with overseeing.
It would require firing fake and biased “watchdogs” like Brian Stelter.
And much more. I’ll be happy to develop a comprehensive process for any news organization that asks me and pays me for it. Journalists should be able to come up with the steps themselves; after all, its their profession. Why haven’t they? They haven’t because they are arrogant, insulated, frightened of the changing media scene, not close to as smart as they think they are, ignorant of the ethics of their own profession, under the delusion that their function is to control events rather than report on them, and in denial.
The result is that this culture and government by the people is at risk being dominated by citizens who have lost the ability to understand the world around them, because the beating heart of the democracy envisioned by our Founders, a free and honest “press,” is rotten with incompetence and bias.