is a right; reading it critically is a duty…
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) One thing that we have learned from the bizarre 2016 United States presidential elections is that the media is simply no longer equipped to perform its function as an impartial, objective reporter, and analyst of important events. And in the only thing I have ever or am ever likely to agree with Donald Trump, the media have done an execrable job covering this election thus far.
There are two salient reasons the coverage of the candidates and their campaigns has been so dismal; the first one is an endemic problem with US media and has existed for a long time: news has to be profitable.
At one time, within my lifetime, the news departments of TV networks were expected to be a net expense; nobody expected them to be profit centres. News desks were occupied by actual journalists and anchors had proven their journalistic chops before they became talking heads. Walter Cronkite, before he became the most trusted man in the country anchoring CBS Evening News, had been a print journalist who had done everything from sports reporting to flying on B17 bomber missions over Europe during WWII.
The “Big Three”, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings anchored their respective networks’ evening news from the ‘eighties through to the 2000s, all having started and subsequently retired within
a year of one another. All three were highly respected actual journalists with training, experience, and talent. But it was toward the second decade of their reign as the trusted triumvirate of television journalism that television journalism began to die. Palpably and incrementally, news began to be replaced by entertainment.
Whereas I can remember a time when network news broadcasts were uninterrupted by commercials, the network executives started to ask themselves why, in an hour that attracted among the most viewers of their entire lineup, they had no revenue-generating ad spots. They argued with their news department journalists that the additional revenue from selling advertising in between news stories would offset the cost of new overseas bureaus, newer and better technology, and higher salaries. Seduced, but in reality not having much choice, the network news departments capitulated and, almost instantly, became seen as profit centres rather than the pro-bono public services they had always been.
All kinds of things changed, from the network studios in New York, all down the line to the regional affiliates. The news departments tenaciously, and increasingly desperately, tried to maintain their journalistic integrity. First, and most obviously, the anchors themselves, and all the other on-air talent began to be selected primarily for their telegenic qualities; journalism experience was unimportant, it
was rationalised, for someone simply to read from a teleprompter. Anchors now were expected to fit neatly into a marketer’s bland, blow-dried conception of a trustworthy television newsman; Ron Burgundy and Ted Baxter were born. And if the public was to believe that the weather reporters were actually meteorologists, one would have to believe that among the pre-requisites for meteorology courses were big tits and a propensity for wearing tight dresses and five inch spikes.
But it wasn’t just the on-air personalities that morphed from journalists into vapid eye candy. Now that the news had started to generate revenue, the suits upstairs couldn’t leave it alone; having found money in a hitherto untapped source, their new mission was to maximise the take. So, in a shameless scramble for ratings, the news itself changed. The affiliates and the networks demeaned themselves by running with stories that had no real significance or impact on viewers’ lives but had shock value. If it bleeds, it leads, became the mantra. Any story with violence or carnage was guaranteed a few minutes, while less viscerally appealing real news was barely mentioned. And, of course, anything that could be strip mined for prurience will be covered. If a school board decided to stop teaching cursive writing and concentrate on keyboard skills instead, that would be a story that is of some importance and relevance to a large number of viewers. If, on the same day, a local mall was holding a lingerie fashion show, there wouldn’t even be a discussion as to where to send the camera crew.
With television journalism at such a low ebb, it is no surprise that coverage of the elections this year is so inept. But there is a second element that contributes to the appallingly unprofessional media coverage.
In the absence of any serious coverage by the major networks, alternative media have sprung up like mushrooms after an autumn rain. Given that anyone can have access to the Internet and potentially reach an audience even greater than any of the networks could twenty years ago, anyone with a WiFi connection can report and comment on the news. There is no tradition of responsible reporting or providing balance or fairness to what is posted on the ‘Net. It’s the wild west out here in the cyberworld. There are some highly partisan but nevertheless reliable outlets run by actual journalists but there are also hate-spewing, attack sites. And they form the majority.
As a consequence, the television news media find themselves trying very hard to appear like seasoned, professional journalists. They strive for an appearance of neutrality and an absence of bias. Unfortunately, they are still playing by rules and conventions that prevailed at a time when the behaviour of a candidate like Donald Trump would have been unthinkable. Virtually every one of the mainstream news media have fallen into the trap of treating Trump as though he is a serious candidate.
The press, in an effort to demonstrate their even-handedness, press Hillary Clinton on the tired, and long since laid to rest email story. Despite having been investigated for years by 9 different panels and agencies, from rabidly partisan Congressional panels to the FBI, and exonerated each time, Matt Lauer
shamed real journalists by wasting her time and ours, apparently thinking he’d turn up something everybody else missed. He then compounded his incompetence by letting Donald Trump slide when he repeated lie after fact-checked lie.
Trump throws around racial, sexual, and ethnic epithets with abandon; he has made prejudice and bigotry the principal pillar of his candidacy. But when Hillary accurately refers to half of his followers as “a basket of deplorables”, she is vilified for being divisive. And the press, to demonstrate their absence of bias, reports the two candidates’ remarks as though they are somehow comparable in their offensiveness. They deliberately create false equivalencies, because to apply the same rules of comportment to both candidates would result in such breathtakingly lopsided reporting, with Trump taking the worst of it, that it might seem as though he was being persecuted when, in fact, he would only be experiencing the same level of scrutiny and reportage any candidate should expect.
But given the lack of journalistic experience or training, one can expect little more from the mainstream media. The non-mainstream media is even worse, of course, but the heavily right-leaning press is largely a self caricature and no one expects high quality journalism. At least when one watches Fox News, one knows that what is being broadcast is straightforward Republican Party talking points and right wing dogma.
So, where should people, who want to know the facts and who expect journalists to have some integrity, turn for their news? There is no single source of news that can be relied upon for clear, unvarnished, fact based journalism. There are even very few news analysis and commentary sources that can be relied upon to tell the truth, even as they criticise a candidate or party. All that can be done is to read as many different sources as possible. Nevertheless, I provide the following tips for deciding whether a news outlet is worth following.
Your suspicions of unprofessionalism ought to be raised if:
- The copy in the reports or columns is in need of proofreading. Typos can occasionally be missed in the best publications, but if a piece is riddled with misspellings or grammar and usage blunders, the writer and/or editor are not professional.
- In place of rational argumentation, the writer relies on distortions of a person’s name to make a point. Expressions like “Killary” or “Obammy” are a tipoff that you’re reading something from someone who has all kinds of attitude but no knowledge of journalism or even argumentation.
- You are repeatedly fooled by clickbait headlines. How many times do you have to click on a header that says something like, “Trump surrogate reduces interviewer to incoherence” only to find that an interviewer stumbled over a word and nothing much else happened?
- A purported news story is structured so that you have to read to the very end of several thousand words to find the salient fact that induced you to read the piece. A professional news writer will have made a habit of writing in the pyramid style: the lede (journalism jargon) will contain the Who, What, Where, and When of the piece, and the Why will be filled in as you read the next sentences. If any of those Ws are only to be found deep in the content, the writer is not a journalist.
Try using those notions as hermeneutics and I’m sure that you’ll find yourself less outraged at the garbage that you have to sort through to get to some approximation of the truth. You’ll never get all the way there, but by discriminating among the multitude of choices available, you’ll have a better basis for judgment. And if the 2016 US presidential election is in desperate need of anything, it’s just that: judgment.