Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union, informs us “a journalist who just passes along what is said is a fancy stenographer, failing at the task of truth telling.” That in a nutshell describes where journalism has gone off the rails and why it’s audience represents only one segment of society.
When I was a cub reporter with the Oberlin College student newspaper, my first assignment was to cover a talk by the poet Stephen Spender. I was asked to take notes so that people not able to attend would get an accurate idea of what he said. I certainly was not expected to judge or evaluate Spender’s presentation.
Later I became a sports editor. The closest I came to “truth telling” was writing a headline that told readers the extent of the victory or defeat. The story itself was a recapitulation of the events of the game or match told without editorial input. Today sports stories rarely report on the game itself; instead they purport to tell us what the victory or defeat means, taking away our pleasure as fans coming to our own conclusions.
When it comes to politics, journalism today is agenda driven. What that means is that the newspaper’s point of view on all major topics is pre-determined. All a reporter needs to do is fill in the details that support the paper’s view. If that’s truth telling, my name is Bill Clinton.
If you need evidence, consider the revelations that discredit the New York Times from being an objective source of information on the issues of the day.
With the election of Donald Trump, the Times resolved to focus on the assumption that he stole the election with help from Russia. “We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well,” said Dean Baquet, the Times’ current executive editor. I would question that conclusion. There was no collusion, but the Times reportedly gained 600,000 digital subscriptions telling its readers daily for more than two years that the evidence was mounting. Mission accomplished.
Today, Baquet has decided to shift to another story: racism. His goal is to reframe the entire history of this country to make it a function of slavery. They want us to believe that the history of the United States of America began with the arrival of the first African slaves at Jamestown in 1619. Slavery taints all and cannot be erased. Not even reparations will satisfy.
It’s easy to see how this game plan accomplishes the Times’ current political agenda. It not only appeals to the descendants of slavery, but it enables the Times to undermine black support for President Trump, which could be a factor in the outcome of the 2020 election.
What should newspapers do?
In its long history on this continent, newspapers evolved from being a voice for owners to express their views on the issues of the day ala Ben Franklin to becoming a platform for political parties, which meant tarring opponents with whatever calumny was handy. In the early 20th century reformers sought to hold papers to a set of principles that included separating news stories from opinion. That was the prevailing ethic until Watergate—the expose of President Nixon’s involvement in trying to undermine George McGovern’s campaign by planting false evidence in a Democrat campaign office.
After that, the big newspapers got swelled heads, feeling their job was not just to report on, but once more to influence the outcome of the issues of the day. If that means reporters inserting their views in news stories, so be it. If that means having an agenda which all stories on a topic such as climate change or tariffs have to adhere to a set position, so be it.
Professional journalists should not just be stenographers, but neither should they couch a news story to follow a political agenda failing to report facts that conflict with those that support the company’s view.
Jill Abramson, Baquet’s predecessor at the Times, wrote a book, Merchants of Truth, in which she argued that newspapers are kowtowing to advertisers in the face of declining revenues. What has turned things around economically for some has fast news distribution via social media, using Twitter for example, to release partial stories ahead of print publication. The danger she sees is a lack of oversight and a rush to judgment. That is exacerbated when the paper has an admitted agenda.
In a democracy, readers ought to be given adequate information to make up their own minds. Newspapers should provide a balanced coverage of the issues, such that reporters tell us what people say on both sides of an issue without editorializing. If they want to express their own opinions on the issues, save it for their personal Twitter account. The arrogance of those who think they are in possession of the truth contributes to the public’s distrust of the media. Fox has it right: their job is to report; ours is to decide.