In an earlier post on this site, (When Did Reporters Become Wimps), I noted that many journalists, who used to be called enterprise reporters, have become less aggressive. Even worse, some have become shills for the political interpretation of the news.
But it is important to note that this has not always been the case. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, reporters were objective and called out public officials who publicly lied to their constituents. Indeed, it was the job of the media to be the watchdog against lies entering the domain of public discussion and to engage people in public education about U.S. institutions and their duties as citizens.
Classic journalism education, including books by Walter Lippmann, Thomas Jefferson, John Peter Zenger, Edward R. Morrow, Walter Cronkite, and others who firmly believed in freedom of the press and intellectual freedom, were often well known to working reporters and were applied in daily reporting. Reporters trained in old-school methods were also aware of their responsibility as journalists and the role of a free press. This is why freedom of the press has been defined as one that “consists of the right to publish with impunity, truth, good motives and for justifiable ends,” as quoted in the book, Freedom of the Press from Zenger to Jefferson.
The keywords here “good motives and for justifiable ends.” That is what is missing from the Trump campaign that says it will not abide by the election results and from the media that supports this candidate who is seeking to destabilize the nation.
Of course, journalism has always had it opportunists and power mongers, like William Randolph Hearst, Col. McCormick, William Loeb, and Roger Ailes, but until Ailes, these ideological-driven conservative publishers were kept in check by a more financially stable and serious press, both broadcast and print.
But over the past few decades, journalism has fundamentally changed both economically and politically due to these factors: the rise of the Internet, conservative think tanks that linked with FOX, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that made it easier for vertical media monopolies to form, Christian Evangelicals that entered the media world, and high-paid conservative shills, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and others.
All this was accompanied by a carefully orchestrated false claim of a “liberal media” conspiracy even when it was clear that monopoly capitalism in the media was driven by conservatives.
So it is not surprising that in a compacting journalism industry, reporters are afraid of losing their jobs out of fear that they will exercise their intellectual and political independence in an ideologically-driven media company. That is not expected since this would happen in an industry where job performance can be tainted by politics.
But it is especially anti-democratic when it becomes visible to the public in the recent presidential debates. For instance, FOX host Chris Wallace said before the interview that he would not assume the role of fact-checker during the debates. This is very odd since the role of any reporter is to be a fact-checker, even when moderating a presidential debate with Trump, whose ability to lie is well- known.
Wallace made another glaring mistake when he asked Trump if he ever met Putin. But in an interview conducted by Wallace himself, Wallace asked Trump if he ever met Putin and Trump replied in his typical elliptical way that he did meet him, but in the debate, Wallace conveniently forgot that Trump said otherwise to Wallace’s face.
Some of the major networks have abandoned any pretext about being independent and objective, but have not told their viewers. For instance, CNN hired former Trump campaign advisor Corey Lewandowski to be an on-air Trump supporter. I assume they also hired a pro-Clinton advocate, but why hire these people at all? Not only is it bad ethically, but it also makes for boring commentary since, for instance, Lewandowski’s paid job is to distort or defend anything Trump says, regardless of whether it is true or logical.
This is why CNN and FOX have these large political panel discussions where there are six or seven contributors arranged in a screen montage that resembles the introduction to the Brady Bunch. Come to think of it, the Brady Bunch was often more intelligent than many of the political discussions I have heard on FOX and CNN.
What Happens When the Press Fails To Do Its Job
In a 1947 report from the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, the Commission suggested that people have the right to know what that if the media fails the government has the right and duty to step in and ensure that the right information is disseminated to the public. The report was chaired by Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago and as expected, the report was greeted coolly by the press at the time.
Now, the role of the government in regards to freedom of the press is a thorny constitutional issue.
But if there is anything the 2016 presidential election process has demonstrated to the public is that the press has to re-discover its public duty. Hopefully, FOX will implode as a result of its sex scandals, followed downward by multi-millionaire, neocon, free-market media ideologues, such as Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Larry Kudlow, Maria Bartiromo, Neil Cavuto, Stuart Varney, and Lou Dobbs. And even if Trump creates an America-first media network, we can be confident it will also follow the same trajectory as Trump’s other businesses: a flash followed by a downward spiral.
So does this mean reporters will still be considered wimps? Certainly not, especially if younger staff reporters go back and study what press freedom and responsibility is all about. Remember the work done by Watergate investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein who shaped a whole generation of serious, critical reporters. Younger people in journalism should take note: Those who have confidence will be able to find media work if they have the backbone to talk truth to power.