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I posed this question to the editors of my local newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, a few weeks ago. Their response was the sound of crickets; nothing. Perhaps they believed that I was being facetious (wrong). Perhaps they believed that I was a right-wing crank (well, no one’s perfect).
What prompted my question to the Dispatch editors was an article in the “hard news” section concerning President Trump. This particular article was written by a journalist from the Associated Press (the Dispatch obtains the vast majority of its national and international news stories from the AP, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post). The journalist opened his article by declaring that the President “observes international norms in the same manner that a teenager observes curfews.” The rest of the article was sprinkled generously with the familiar “snarl” words directed toward Trump and the accompanying “purr” words when describing Trump’s opponents (to those of you not familiar with S.I. Hayakawa’s seminal work “Language in Thought and Action,” “snarl” and “purr” words are those with built-in judgments).
Although this article was not unique it was particularly ironic in that, just a few days earlier, the Dispatch had published a lengthy article detailing research that showed the steadily increasing numbers of Americans who no longer believe what they see or read in this country’s mainstream media. Now, I’m not concerned in the slightest about what I see on cable news stations or what I read in the Opinion sections of newspapers. I know, up front, what to expect. However, when I turn to the “hard news” section of a newspaper I expect a “Jack Webb” approach to the news; “Just the facts, ma’am.”
OK, I guess I’m giving away my age. I grew up in an era when the family grouped around the TV for the evening news and watched as folks such as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, and Walter Cronkite kept us informed of world events. We believed them; what’s more, we trusted them. Similarly, we read our morning (or evening) newspapers and knew that those hard-bitten AP or UPI reporters were giving us the “straight scoop” on every story that we read. If we didn’t agree with what was written in the Opinion pages, we simply moved on.
Then, things changed that caused us to question our news sources. Though there were numerous instances, perhaps the most egregious were NBC’s “revelations” of exploding GM pickup trucks and CBS’s attempted “October Surprise” just before the 2004 Presidential elections.
Similarly, scandals in the print media such as the Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair cases showed us how easily we readers could be manipulated. We realized that something was amiss.
It didn’t happen overnight. The journey of American journalism has been long and tortuous. As Professor Larry Schweikart writes in his excellent book, “7 Events That Made America America,” American newspapers in the 1830s were little more than “neighborhood gossip rags.” However, during the Civil War, Americans demanded more objective reporting, hungry to know more about the conflict that was consuming the country.
Then, in the 1930s journalists banded together to form associations and establish standards that sought to provide some semblance of professionalism in the gathering and dissemination of the news. These standards seemed to work well for most of the century. Journalists, for the most part, adhered to the rules of their profession. Of course, there were exceptions (perhaps the most notable, the fables of Walter Duranty while covering events in the Soviet Union for The New York Times); however, there was a real belief that journalists did adhere to ethical standards of conduct.
As we know today, those journalistic ethics have gone the way of the Betamax player. There are a number of theories as to why this has happened. Some hold water; some do not. However, only a fool could fail to see that American journalism, as typified by the mainstream media, is failing. Newspaper after newspaper has shuttered their doors. (In my own state of Ohio, one of the leading newspapers, The Youngstown Vindicator, simply gave up the ghost and went out of business.) Others have been swallowed up by media conglomerates. (The Columbus Dispatch itself was bought up by Gatehouse Media and then became part of the merger with Gannett Media.)
One would think that, in an environment such as this, newspaper owners and editors, along with their counterparts in broadcast media, would examine their practices and how they affect their readership/viewership. Sadly, that’s not going to happen.
One of the most telling statistics that I have read (concerning the media) was a poll conducted in the early 2000s. In that study of business and media elites, 9 out of 10 business leaders said that “people can be trusted.” In contrast, 7 out of 10 media leaders agreed with that statement. I suspect that today the gap is even greater.
Somewhere along the line, the mainstream media gave up on its mission to inform and sought, instead, to indoctrinate. (The New York Times abhorrent “1619 Project” readily comes to mind.) Their attitude toward news consumers changed from helpfulness to condescension. Instead of being above the social media mob, the MSM has eagerly joined in; sometimes with vitriol that has exceeded the most virulent of the Twitterati. While many in the MSM decry the tribalization in our society, they continue to contribute to it.
Why has the MSM become so wildly out of touch with their readers/viewers? I believe that there is conclusive evidence that, as the “old heads” in both the print and broadcast media have retired (or died), they have been replaced by younger, more radical journalists far more interested in converting news consumers rather than informing them. In conjunction, I believe that many media heads think of the news as entertainment rather than information. I don’t believe there’s any question that members of the MSM consider themselves superior to the viewing public.
Sadly, so assured are they in their own hubris, they will trot out such once-disgraced personalities as Howell Raines, Dan Rather and (Lyin’) Brian Williams, confident that we have forgotten their rank dishonesty. Can they not realize that for every story they report and for every statement they make, they are being fact-checked by an army of internet detectives? Do they even care?
I believe that the situation has gotten to the point that the MSM cannot be saved from themselves. For some inexplicable reason, they seem to believe that most, if not all, of their problems have been brought about by the alternative media. In reality, most of their wounds have been self-inflicted.
What is doubly tragic is that newspapers and local broadcast media do perform a great service to their communities with their local reporting. The aforementioned Youngstown Vindicator’s excellent reporting resulted in the conviction of nearly 70 local white-collar criminals and mafia members. The Dispatch has done similarly excellent work covering the opioid crisis and corruption in local politics.
However, this good work has been overshadowed by their rush leftward, culturally and politically. The MSM is little more than a faint shadow of its former self. For that reason, I will not be sorry to see its total demise. Perhaps something will come out of its ashes that we can someday have trust in.