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The Corporate Media Overdoses On It's Own BS
I'm not sure we have enough Narcan to save this one...
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In a Substack post discussing the recent Columbia Journalism Review article, The press versus the president, in which Jeff Gerth blows the lid off of the Russiagate conspiracy once and for all and the media’s complicity in it, the venerable Matt Taibi writes
The press is supposed to be one of society’s primary mechanisms for holding people in power accountable, but the system only works if reporters and editors aim that regulatory reflex at themselves first.
Truer words have never been written. Keep this preamble in mind as we go-
Several months ago, I got into a debate about news sources with a lefty friend (I live and grew up in Massachusetts, so that’s basically all the friends I have). I told him that I subscribe to the Ben Shapiro-led, The Daily Wire, to which he responded something along the lines of “that’s not news; that’s propaganda.” That’s fine, but a) at least I know where their biases lay, and b) that’s not the only place I get my news.
When asked where he gets his news, he said from “objective” sources like the New York Times and NPR (I know, I know…). That’s when I had to break the bad news to him…objectivity is a farce. It doesn’t exist. Every single one of us has our biases. The best you can hope for is that people are aware of and try to account for them, or at least be upfront about them.
That was the conversation I immediately thought of when I stumbled upon this article in the Washington Post.
Wow…are we getting somewhere? Maybe newsrooms will drop the kabuki dance of “objectivity” and be up-front about their biases.
In financial opinion writing, many authors will alert readers to their financial stakes in the company on which they are reporting, so the reader can take those biases into account when reviewing the analysis. I am a big fan of this tact and have always wondered why newsrooms don’t require the same from their reporters. Maybe we’ll get to the point where newsrooms will require staffers to alert readers to their biases, such as whom they voted for in the most recent election, what candidates they donated to, or what organizations they have volunteered for.
This would be a significant step forward in trust in reporting.
Then I read the article…and died a little inside.
Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post and now a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University., wrote a summation of 75 interviews he and a colleague conducted of “news leaders, journalists, and other experts in mainstream print, broadcast, and digital news media.”
Over the course of the article, it becomes clear that the prescription Dr. Downie is, rather than trying to detox the addicted patient, we should cure the “lack of trust” disease by pumping the meth addict full of more drugs, thinking that will cure their addiction rather than flatlining it.
The opening two paragraphs are a fascinating study of willful blindness, so let’s review them piece by piece:
Amid all the profound challenges and changes roiling the American news media today, newsrooms are debating whether traditional objectivity should still be the standard for news reporting. “Objectivity” is defined by most dictionaries as expressing or using facts without distortion by personal beliefs, bias, feelings or prejudice. Journalistic objectivity has been generally understood to mean much the same thing.
Not a bad start, even though I am left wondering why he is drawing distinctions between “traditional objectivity,” “journalistic objectivity,” and plain-old Webster’s dictionary definitions of “objectivity.” This could be an ominous sign…
But increasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality.
What now? Being objective is a distortion of reality? About 20 words ago, Downie defines objectivity as being without distortion. Far be it for me to tell an old pro like Downie how to do his job, but if the goal, as he claims in the article’s headline, is to “build trust,” contradicting yourself two paragraphs into your piece is not a great jumping-off point.
They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world.
Does anyone remember the controversial White Culture poster that showed up in The National Museum of African American History and Culture a couple of years back, where things like “self-reliance,” “hard work,” and “the nuclear family” were all described as “Whiteness & White Culture?” Guess what else was on that list? “Objective, rational linear thinking.”
So, as stated in the “whiteness” poster, the newsroom standard of objectivity was wrong because a bunch of white guys set it? Is the newsroom standard different in places like Kenya or Japan where, I have to guess, white guys, do not lead most newsrooms?
The claim that it was the objectivity that “reinforced their own view of the world,” again, flies in the face of the concept of objectivity. If they were being objective, their view of the world wouldn’t have mattered.
They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects.
Do you see what he did there? He pulled the old “magician changing a magic wand into a steaming pile of cow shit” trick. Objectivity now magically becomes “bothsidesism” when it meets a journalist. Odd, I thought the entire purpose of the news was to be an expert at “bothsidesism,” but apparently, I was wrong.
That becomes doubly true when covering left-wing hobby horses. Good thing they still used the good ol’ “bothsidesism” for the Jussie Smollet attack and the UVA rape case; otherwise, that could have been embarrassing…and expensive.
And what is the definition of “false balance?” Is that like when you are weighing your gram of coke, but the dealer uses a half-gram counterweight? Yeah, I’ve only ever seen that in movies too.
And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.
Public service announcement: Can we get the word “truth” into a battered woman shelter, please? No word in our language has been more abused over the past decade than it...and its primary abuser is the concept of “my truth.” We need a restraining order to keep those two crazy kids apart.
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Now we get to the gist of the matter. It’s not that newsrooms think that being “objective” is a bad thing; it’s that they want their “reporters” to push certain narratives. I thought there was already a place in the newspaper for people to utilize their “identities,” “life experiences,” and “cultural contexts” to give perspective on the news, called the op-ed page.
Amazingly that is Dr. Downie’s proposal to cure newsrooms of the “lack of trust” disease; reporting should mainline an eight-ball of “my truth” directly into their newsroom’s carotid artery, thinking that will cure the disease, as opposed to killing the profession permanently. Do you think they’ll reserve a couple of pages for real news, at least? Nah. You can’t possibly give enough space to the gay, black, non-binary, Trekkie, furry-fetish, tiny people’s perspectives on the federal deficit. There are only so many columns on a page.
Remember, this is just the first two paragraphs of a thirty-ish-paragraph story.
Later, Downie reminisces about the Ben Bradlee days of the WaPo when
…our generation of young journalists moved away from mostly unquestioning news coverage of institutional power.
Moved away? Why did you move into that tenement apartment anyway? Was it when you were strung out? It was never the job of journalists to give “unquestioning” coverage of institutional power. That’s simply propaganda and defeats the purpose of a free press and moves into Pravda territory.
At least now Downie’s issue comes into focus; he never understood a journalist’s job in the first place, so how can we blame him for his Requiem for a Dream, Picasso-like perspectives now? I’ve never worked in a newsroom, so I’m not sure if he is the remedial kid in class or if he is representing the essence of them.
Here comes my favorite line from the article:
Now, the mainstream news media is coping with economic and digital disruption, along with increasing competition from misinformation on cable television and the internet.
I can’t believe it took this long to get to, wait for it, wait for it, wait, wait, wait…MISINFORMATION. The only reason corporate media is struggling economically isn’t because of cable TV or “the internet” (I think an “ok boomer” is appropriate here) but because of the “misinformation,” they spread. If they were honest reporters like those at WaPo, The New York Times, and USA Today and not using the performance-enhancing drug of misinformation, corporate media institutions would be beating their brains in; it’s only because of the lies that they win.
As I’ve written before, I’ve never understood the logic of this argument. Just because someone lies about something doesn’t make it interesting, and because someone tells the truth doesn’t make it banal. This is cope from people who have spent their entire lives dedicated to a corrupt system that is now exposed and collapsing in on itself, and they can’t stand to look in the mirror to understand why it’s happening.
I paint with a broad brush here because, as Downie makes abundantly clear later in the piece, this is not only his issue but corporate media as a whole, which has its collective head buried in its rectum.
Read this assortment of perspectives from venerable “news” people across the industry:
Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor of the Associated Press, asked about objectivity, “It’s objective by whose standard…[t]hat standard seems to be White, educated, fairly wealthy… [a]nd when people don’t feel like they find themselves in news coverage, it’s because they don’t fit that definition.”
Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, informs us that “The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong. Objectivity has got to go.” [ed - you know what I always say, make sure you are listening to the least experienced, dumbest of us to set our strategies.]
Kevin Merida, editor at Los Angeles Times, says, “[w]e find ways for our journalists to share more of that…” meaning their writer’s personal identities, including first-person essays on the front page. And later, “We’re trying to create an environment in which we don’t police our journalists too much. Our young people want to be participants in the world.” [ed - in other words, activists masquerading as journalists]
Joseph Kahn, executive editor at The New York Times, “I don’t want to throw labels like ‘racist’ or ‘lying’ around willy-nilly, the evidence should be high…[b]ut I think it’s true that, when the evidence is there, we should not default to some mealy-mouthed, so-called neutral language that some people see this as a falsehood, while others do not. When the evidence is there, we should be clear and direct with our audience that we don’t think there are multiple sides to this question, this is a falsehood. And the person repeating this falsehood over and over is guilty of lying.” [ed - Duke University insisted there was no way they could look stupid taking this stance in the coverage of the Duke Laccrosse case and that worked out flawlessly, right?]
As expected, Downie concludes that the elixir to all corporate media’s woes is
…that truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever “objectivity” once meant to produce more trustworthy news.
It seems Downie is taking a new twist on the old Winston Churchill saying, “if you’re going through hell, keep going,” but instead adjusting it to, “if you’re addicted to the smack, just keep on shooting.”
Listen, Leonard buddy, I’ve got some bad news I’ve got to break to you; I just shook up my magic 8-ball to see how your prescriptions are going to work out in saving corporate media, and I’ve got some bad news for you.
Amazingly, Downie wraps up his article in the most tone-deaf way conceivable.
One essential value for all Americans is the survival of democratic institutions, which are under attack on multiple fronts. Trustworthy journalism by a new generation of journalists and newsroom leaders can ensure that the news media continues to do its part to protect democracy.
Did he happen to read the article he wrote? Or did he have ChatGPT write it for him and click send? What wisdom has he bestowed upon us in this article would make him think what he has proscribed makes for “trustworthy” journalism? He laid out a screed that can be summarized as “newsrooms across America agree, we should drop the pretense of being journalists, and simply become outspoken activists, at all time.”
Deep down, I appreciate this…at least now we can stop pretending. Here’s hoping that someday, the corporate media realizes they need rehab for their addiction, not more of the same drug.
Until next time…