The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson
The sun is shining here, and there are signs that the American economy is turning around.
The tea party Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have been defeated and humbled, so even though Christmas is not my favorite time of year, I have some Christmas cheer.
But that’s not why I’m writing today.
Over the past few days, my thinking has developed a little more on the subject of what constitutes “objective” journalism. So I want to get these thoughts down before I forget.
I have told the story before about how Adolph Ochs moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee to New York in the late 1800s and purchased the New York Times, which was something like eighth in circulation in a market with many newspapers. It was the height of the era of the mass circulation daily newspaper. Ochs had been successful with the Chattanooga Times, but wanted to get in on the big action in the Big Apple.
At that time, Pulitzer and Hearst were already dominate forces in the newspaper industry, and they would soon go on an all out drive to buy up every newspaper they could around the country to turn the print newspaper business into a series of massive chains for their own profit. It was the era of “Yellow Journalism,” when political parties were still paying most of the freight for newspapers and people were titillated by the coverage of sensational crime and such.
Sound familiar? One could argue that we are living in a similar age. The news is dominated by coverage of sensational crime today, along with celebrity journalism, even by the so-called mainstream news outlets like the Associated Press and today’s New York Times.
What’s more, the coverage of crime is never connected to its root social causes, including poverty and broken families.
Some scholars in the early days of science in the U.S. saw this Yellow Journalism as a major problem for the future of American-style democracy. No one has adequately told this story, so we don’t know all the details, but Ochs was obviously influenced by this thinking and wanted to do something about it. Most likely also concerned about discrimination on the part of some Americans against the Jews, Ochs wanted to create a newspaper that fought racial prejudices and other falsehoods with facts.
Science was still in its infancy in those days. Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species in 1859 and died in 1882. So the science of evolution was still on the minds of scholars and newspaper publishers.
In 1892 Joseph Pulitzer offered Columbia University millions of dollars to establish the world’s first journalism school, but the school’s president turned him down. Pulitzer left the university $2 million in his will, however, which led to the creation of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1934.
While Pulitzer was interested the whole idea of “professionalizing” journalism, he was a Republican who practiced sensationalism for profit.
Ochs had a different idea that ended up paying off in a big way.
While the Wikipedia page on him is quite short, and claims his success was due to his paper’s “fairness in the presentation of news, editorial moderation and ample foreign service (that) secured a high place in American journalism,” there is another element to this story that needs to be told.
I submit, and hope to one day produce the documentary about it, that something else was really going on in the minds of people then.
I spent nearly a decade teaching the skills of objective journalism to students from textbooks I felt were incomplete if not downright wrong. Most early journalism textbooks were written by failed journalists who went into academe as a way to make a little better than a meager living. More recent textbooks are written by sociologists and communications scholars who rely on what little research exists from those days, and much of it is colored by what happened to the economics of American journalism after the 1920s, starting during the Great Depression when everybody was desperate for money.
Economic desperation tends to color one’s point of view.
What Really Happened?
Here is my hypothesis for what really happened, followed by my theory and argument for what we need today.
I suspect there are letters in existence between newspaper publishers and government officials from the late 1800s and early 1900s that have never been released that would shed considerable light on the thinking in those days. Some of these letters may have some embarrassing elements keeping the holders of the papers from releasing them publicly.
But this much seems certain. Newspapers were seen as the chief mechanism for communicating with the mass public in the era before widespread use of radio and the invention of television. The nation was a country of immigrants, and many learned the language on these shores by reading newspapers.
Furthermore, it is fairly obvious that the prime modus operandi of the establishment in the U.S. has always been the protection of our model of a democratic republic. Newspapers were seen as the primary communication and educational tool to foster this form of government and way of life, although I would argue that they ultimately abandoned that mission in the 20th century.
We already know there was much concern about propaganda in the early 20th century, especially out of Germany, black propaganda that is or bad information that could lead to wars and threats to this burgeoning democracy. One need only read Walter Lippmann’s book Public Opinion published in 1922 to see that. Lippman saw the problems of newspapers then and thought they should move toward a more social scientific approach and improve what they were publishing in order to better educate the public to be good citizens in a democracy.
Unfortunately, he took a lot of criticism for those ideas and changed his mind by 1925, when he published another book, The Phantom Public. In it, he expressed a lack of faith in the democratic system, arguing that the very idea of a mass public that could be guided in its opinions by newspapers was an “illusion and a myth.”
Now I’m thinking, if Lippmann were around today, what would he have to say about Fox News? I doubt if anyone would dispute the media’s ability to influence a mass audience today.
I think Ochs believed in that mission at the turn of the 20th century. He believed that gleaning objective truth from science and relentless reporting was possible. Objectivity is a term from science. He wanted to pursue it in journalism.
He and some other publishers refused to run sensational nonsense, instead concentrating on information that could be verified on the truly big news stories of the day that actually mattered. The news that people “needed,” not just what they “wanted.”
The New York Times relentlessly pursued reliable sources of information on what the government was doing and what was happening in science, while refusing to run religious news or pseudo science like horoscopes and such.
Over time, that earned the Times a special place in American journalism. World leaders and scholars considered it the “newspaper of record” on the American scene. There is a host of communications scholarship that paints it as the “agenda-setter” of news in the U.S., with wide influence on what other news organizations report, and thus what the public is exposed to.
Unfortunately, starting in the 1930s, many newspaper publishers abandoned that mission and turned “objective journalism” into just another marketing slogan to make money, and caved in to publishing lies from “both sides” of the political spectrum so they could sell papers by telling people they were “fair and balanced,” just like Fox News today.
Unfortunately for the New York Times, due to economic problems caused by the loss in credibility during the Jayson Blair scandal a few years back, and some changes in management around that time, along with some bad business decisions, it appears the Times no longer deserves this special place in American journalism. In my view, that means we have to build something else on the Web to replace it.
The Problem With Fair and Balanced News
Here is my latest thinking on the problem of “fair and balanced” as a definition for objective journalism.
Take the story on the recent controversy over the defense budget fight. This is a classic example of how the public, and even some very smart journalists, can be misled by bad — but fair and balanced — deadline reporting.
The first story out on it blamed President Obama for threatening our civil liberties, and that was seized upon by commentators who are trying to make a name for themselves as “objective” journalists by being willing to criticize a Democratic president. This is what Howell Raines did as editorial page editor of the New York Times in the 1990s, when he went after President Bill Clinton with a vengeance during the Monica Lewinsky scandal
The problem is, a couple of days after that initial report on the recent defense budget bill, we found out that it was Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and other Republicans who were threatening our civil liberties, and that President Obama was trying to defend the use of civilian trials rather than secret military tribunals to handle cases against suspected “terrorists.”
The meme, or information virus, about President Obama, however, had already spread far and wide over the Internet, so there was no getting the story back, no way to straighten things out in a way that would dissuade the public from concluding that Obama was the bad guy and the Republicans were the good guys.
In its drive to give both sides of the story, the Associated Press actually misled the public on a mass scale. That is why guys like Karl Rove are allowed to thrive in this country. The press always needs somebody to provide the “other side,” even if it is total bullshit.
From thinking about the way things went down, here is how I want to phrase the problem with two-sided journalism. In addition to the obvious conclusion that there are many instances when we can know the truth, and to print the lie that says it’s not true just to be “fair and balanced” for the money is wrong on many levels, what it really does is leave everything up to the biases and prejudices of the reader to decide who they think is right. Global warming coverage is another prime example of this.
While the guiding philosophy has been to publish both sides and let the people decide for themselves, are there not times when that strategy will leave the truth on the cutting room floor? Are there not times when that can lead to war and a collapse in the economy for everybody? Are there not times when we need real leadership to tell people the truth and debunk the lies?
I would argue that the constant story in the news media giving both sides on whether government regulation is good or bad falls into this category. It shows a lack of understanding of the science of economics.
Do we not have enough information now to know that there is no such thing, really, as an “unfettered free market?” Do we not have enough information to conclude that the lack of oversight of the oil industry contributed to the massive oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago? Do we not have enough information to tell the American public categorically that unregulated markets caused the banking and credit crisis that came very close to plunging the entire world economy into a Great Depression in the Bush years?
I think we do, and I think we need to rethink our definition of objective journalism — if we are going to survive. I also think it is too late for traditional newspapers to change how they do business. The institutions have been compromised for too long to change. We need to build an entirely new culture, and we have the tool to do it now. It is called the World Wide Web.
But every day, there are people out there who want to use this new technology to the same ends of the mass circulation daily newspaper. They want to rush things into publication before the ideas have been peer reviewed just so they can get traffic, get famous and turn a profit.
As the philosopher Erich Fromm once said: “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”
We need the resources to build this Web Press, but we don’t need people dominating it with no altruistic purpose or scientific intent. That is the difference between the idea behind the The Locust Fork New-Journal versus online publications such as the Examiner and the AOL-Huffington Post. I hope readers can see that at the end of the day when it matters.
Meanwhile, we hope you and yours have a happy holiday season. We are going to try to find a way to take a break from the relentless pursuit of news and have some fun. We hope you do too.
© 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved. The Locust Fork News-Journal, LocustFork.Net