“Mainstream media is at fault for the election results.” “Mainstream media can never be believed.” “If it’s in the news, it can’t be true.” “Liars, liars, liars!”
Mainstream media is under attack, but how fair is our criticism? How realistic are our expectations? How much are we letting Donald Trump’s rhetoric influence our own opinions? Are we so lost in the details of isolated mistakes that we fail to see the big picture?
Trump’s contempt for and assault on the media is inexhaustible. His fervent supporters continue to fall for Don’s con, buying the lie that mainstream media cannot be believed. They allow Trump to steal from them one of their most important and Constitutionally protected rights. The press, after all, with its freedom, is Trump’s enemy. Truth is his enemy. And no doubt about it, Trump plays dirty when he fights his enemies.
The free press has tremendous power, and the best way for Trump to fight against the power of truth is to totally discredit the industry. So long as his people don’t believe what they hear or read in “the news,” Trump can continue to control their beliefs, ideals, and, most importantly, their votes.
The issue isn’t specifically about how the news is reported; the issue is that regardless of what journalists say and no matter how they say it, “if it’s in the news, it can’t be true.” It’s a conspiratorial belief that is deeply ingrained into Trump’s base, and there’s no doubt that Donald Trump fully exploited the conspiracy theorists.
It’s not difficult to understand how a large portion of Trump’s base falls for the lie about mainstream media. But how do we make sense of the highly educated, “worldly” people who fall for Trump’s con?
THE NEWS VS THE NEWS
Trump’s attack on mainstream media is part of his strategic control of his supporters, but many people do have a legitimate misunderstanding of modern journalistic standards and what is meant by “the news.”
When I was a child, “the news” was easy to define. Broadcast media was still in its relative infancy. There was Walter Cronkite who told us what was going on in the world and around the nation. I lived in Columbia, MO., home of one of the best journalism schools in the world, so the newscaster sitting in the anchor’s chair was always an unfamiliar face, a student who changed on a revolving basis. But the weather forecast was always delivered by a “friend,” Paul Pepper. Everyone knew and counted on Paul Pepper.
Hard news and commentary never shared the same space. Every once in awhile, at the end of the news, there would be a “Special Editorial” segment. It was clear that what we would hear was the opinion of the person delivering the editorial, and that there was a damn good reason to interrupt the regularly scheduled broadcast to squeeze in a 5 minute editorial piece.
For truly in-depth news, we turned to the newspaper. Print media was a burgeoning industry. And, as it is today, the editorial section was clearly labeled.
In our home, the newspaper was important. My granddad read aloud from the Globe Democrat or The Tribune each morning while Grandma prepared and served a hot homemade breakfast — biscuits made from scratch, sausage or bacon from our hogs, milk gravy from our dairy cows, eggs from our chickens, jam from the wild berries I picked, and butter that I churned every Saturday morning. I always sat quietly listening to Granddad read “stories” from the newspaper (that’s what they were to me) while I colored a masterpiece inside of a Christian-themed coloring book.
Back then, the Vietnam War and hippies were forefront in the news. But locally, the weather forecast was always the most important part of the news. My grandparents were farmers, and the weather really mattered. When Paul Pepper came on, we knew that absolute silence was required of us. After all, “rewind” didn’t yet exist, and weather apps had not been contemplated.
Today, “the news” means something entirely different. But because so many of us remember a time when the news was something else altogether — when commentary and editorials were seldom included in a newscast — perhaps many of us have unrealistic expectations from today’s mainstream media.
Some people confuse commentary with hard news, making it easier for them to buy into the conspiracy theory that mainstream media is lying to us. While it is true that journalists are expected to be objective, modern journalism falls on a spectrum, with a range from “total objectivity” to “specialized commentary” and editorialized opinion pieces.
Legitimate mainstream media outlets need to make a clear distinction between hard news (objective information) and subjective commentary. And, for the most part, that distinction is clear. But it’s not perfect.
For example, when the Carrier deal was recently reported, early reports included statements like, “This is clearly a major victory for the president-elect.” The hard news was that Trump negotiated a deal; the commentary was that it was a “major victory.” The reports I heard came primarily from field reporters who do a lot of reporting “on the fly,” so I was empathetic with the individual reporters, but I was also irritated.
People might actually believe that Trump had a major victory! I thought. And I knew it wasn’t a victory at all, much less a major one. I knew it would take some time to sort through the facts — the hard news — before anyone could fairly express an informed opinion. I took to Twitter to express my frustration. To my surprise, the “likes” and “re-tweets” started pouring in. Obviously, we don’t like it when our journalists make mistakes.
What most of us would think of as a “mistake” or “bad judgment,” Trump calls an intentional lie. No doubt he liked the reports that referred to the Carrier deal as a “major victory,” but the criticism of the media by Trump and his camp has otherwise become increasingly absurd, so much so that the media is now “at fault” for accurately reporting the actual words delivered publically by the president-elect. Mainstream media is full of liars because they don’t first translate Donald Trump’s literal statements before reporting them? Seriously absurd.
Absurdities aside, how fair are we in our criticism of mainstream media?
I’ve been narrowly focused these past few days on learning what I can about Trump’s various selections for key White House and cabinet positions. I want to know more than what can be learned from sound-bites about these people. As I dig and search and read, I am learning a lot — but mostly I am learning that there is far too much information “out there” for me to adequately absorb. Just keeping up with a Twitter feed can be a full time job.
And that’s when it hit me: What a job these people have — the journalists and editors and writers and researchers, etc! With the immeasurable amount of information cast about the planet from a multitude of mediums on a 24/7/365 basis, how in the hell are they supposed to choose what’s important, find and confirm the truth, arrange and narrow the story down to digestible bites, provide graphics to keep our focus, and report on it — all before it becomes “old news”?
It’s an overwhelming task.
There’s no arguing the fact that they sometimes get it wrong. And sometimes they get it wrong in a major way. But it’s just as true that most often they get it right.
For a moment, just try to put yourself in the shoes of, say, Anderson Cooper or Chris Cuomo. Even with a full staff to help, can you imagine the enormous task involved in just one news cycle? Or what about field reporters in war zones? Try, as best as you can, to be fair and reasonable in your ponderings. These are human beings we are discussing; not infallible robots or data mining machines.
In my opinion, most mainstream media outlets do a pretty damn good job. For the most part. And that’s a good thing.
For those people who blame the media for the election results: What, exactly, could (or should) the media have ignored during the election that would have made a difference in the outcome?
Some TV journalists — like JoyAnn Reid, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Chris Matthews — are using their power and influence to truly hold Trump accountable — and they are doing it in a way that remains fair and honest under modern journalistic standards. Their respective shows are intended to be editorialized, but the commentary and discussions with guests are built around truthful, factual hard news.
So, there are really talented, decent, honest journalists out there, and they are doing a phenomenal job, overall. The problem, though, is that they are preaching to the choir, for the most part. The very people who would benefit most from spending their evenings tuned into MSNBC (or any other legitimate news source) are the same people who are loyal to, say, Fox News, and/or radical alt-right broadcasters. Then there are some who don’t listen to or read any news beyond Trump’s Twitter feed.
IN A NUTSHELL
Today’s media is part of what makes this such a great nation. We’ve progressed dramatically since the days of Walter Cronkite and the 15-minute newscast. We are blessed to have a free press, and — regardless of which corporation owns a particular media outlet — we must recognize that the good men and women of the press have a really tough job.
Our criticisms and expectations need to be balanced and fair, especially during this moment in history when we desperately need journalists and commentators to help move us forward. They can do it, honestly and objectively, by choosing to investigate and report (and comment on) stories that are vital to our collective welfare.
When a truly intelligent journalist is tasked with the difficult job of going beyond the hard news and into the realm of commentary, the burden is much heavier, the responsibility much greater.
This means that they need to ask the hard questions regardless of the answers. And sometimes they need to ask questions for which we don’t yet have answers, questions which make us think harder about who we are, what we want, and where we are headed. Having the power to shape the thoughts of the masses is a power that must be respected and honored with a certain degree of humility and with absolute integrity.
We need strong journalists who are skillful and courageous enough to out-maneuver fast-talking rhetoric robots like KellyAnne Conway. When these people are held to task and not allowed to get away with manipulating the truth, they are likely to stop accepting invitations for free publicity — and that’s fine. Allowing them to muddy the waters and continuously spread lies is, without a doubt, not an acceptable role of main stream media.
And with respect to the Trump supporters who have allowed themselves to be robbed of the value of a free press, I suspect that the time will come when the truth of the truth hails down on them, bursting their conspiracy-theory and fantasy bubbles. Maybe. There will always be people who refuse the truth, but let’s do what we can to make sure they are a silent minority instead of the “majority” that swung the election in Trump’s favor.
Lynda C. Watts
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