If there is one thing on which we all can agree, it is that there is no consensus on the proper role of the news media in today’s America. As a lifelong veteran of the business, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs writes as a Boomer Voice about his own point of view. Some will call it a personal opinion. He calls it professional.
Does the news media have a responsibility to help heal this nation? Does it even have a role?
Amidst our angst in the wake of the election, then the attempted coup, the answers might seem obvious. But after a career of more than 50 years between the news business and now— and I make this distinction because a lot of people don’t understand it— the opinion business, I’ll argue, the answers aren’t obvious at all.
Yes, of course the media has a role, because it is through the media that Americans find out how their elected representatives and their fellow Americans think. But a responsibility to help heal? That means asking journalists to impose their views of what’s right and wrong, what’s appropriate and inappropriate, what’s moral and immoral, on you. That’s not fact-based journalism. A journalist’s responsibility it is to lay everything out and, at risk of glorifying the sometimes disingenuous slogan of Fox, let you decide. Otherwise, how can you?
If you want the news media to go beyond that objective, you’re putting it on a slippery slope. Forgive me if I’m being brazen but what you should want is for the media to unambiguously define the difference between fact and fiction. As Forbes editor Randall Lane recently wrote of all the fiction from the Trump White House, “Up has been down, yes has been no, failure has been success.” When someone in the public eye is belching forth fiction, it deserves to be called out.
What you should want is for the media not to mince words. When something bears the filthy stain of an insurrection, journalists shouldn’t just call it a “riot,” they should call it what it is, because while a riot hurts people and property, an insurrection hurts democracy. When public figures tell a lie, journalists should call it what it is: a lie. Describing it as anything less— “baseless,” “groundless,” “misleading,” “meritless,” or any of the many other euphemisms we’ve seen and heard in the past few months— is a disservice to people who need an unvarnished account of the truth.
What you should want is for journalists not to play nice with liars. To be sure, Republicans don’t have a hammerlock on dishonesty and deceit; there’s plenty to go around on both sides of the aisle. But in today’s atmosphere, I’ll put the millstone on the necks of unrepentant Republicans who still carry the discredited banner, and disgorge the perfidious hogwash, of Donald Trump. I see too few journalists pointing out the piousness of these politicians now calling for unity, after four years of enabling a president who took a knife to unity. I see too few journalists, when interviewing these hypocrites, calling out their idol’s duplicity and making them present facts to prove otherwise. When something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t add up, journalists always must ask, “Why?” That’s Journalism 101.
All this might make it seem that I’m advocating for advocates in journalism. I’m not. What I’m advocating for is fact-based news. With this caveat: while those of us on the opinion side of the business also have an obligation to respect the facts, we dispense opinion, not news. But no matter which side of the business we’re on, our words matter. As contributor Zeynep Tufeko wrote in The Atlantic, “Language is a tool of survival.” If there’s an evasion, expose it in the light. If there’s a lie, say it’s a flat-out lie. That’s called accountability. When members of the White House press corps challenged the president, Trump’s truth-challenged press secretary called them “activists.” No. They’re journalists. Those challenges are their job.
What you should want is for the media to give you both sides of the story. Last summer, staffers at The Philadelphia Inquirer angrily wrote to the paper’s editors, “We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.” I think they couldn’t be farther off the mark. In my long experience covering social and cultural and political disputes, there are two sides to nearly every story. Not necessarily two good sides, but don’t lose sight of the conundrum here: “good” is in the eyes of the beholder. Over the years, although never without counterbalance, I’ve interviewed American Nazis, Iranian mullahs, Arab terrorists, pathological killers, and put them on the air. I didn’t find an ounce of good in any of them, but they are a force in our lives, and we ignore them at our peril.
Which leads to a pressing question: should the media now ignore ex-president Donald Trump? There are strong arguments in favor. But I argue otherwise. As long as the man still commands a following, he commands coverage. The principle is what I wrote near the top: it’s the only way we can know— even if we don’t understand— how some of our fellow Americans think. He won’t be a daily force in our lives any more, he’ll be just another fighter from the fringe. But if we ignore him, we ignore his followers, and we do that at our peril.
So what you should want is for the media to take a reactive role to disorder, not a proactive one. Sure, every day of our lives, the media makes practical decisions about what’s news and what’s not. But what you should not want is for the media to make moral decisions about what the public needs to know and what it doesn’t. As a fellow journalist recently wrote to me, “Proactive roles are part of what has diminished the credibility of the media.”
Personally, I hate what’s happened in the business I love, because my journalist friend is right. Even the eminent New York Times, which I read every day for news and commentary, has let its editorial page morph into its front page. Likewise the most-watched television news outlets, like NBC and CNN. We know, of course, about Fox.
So when it comes to “healing,” what you should want is that the media reports on those who are trying to advance that objective, but also on those who have tried to impede it. If the media has any responsibility to exercise, that’s it.
Sixty years ago, President John F. Kennedy spoke to the American Newspaper Publishers Association. As he pointed out back then, the news media is “the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution… to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”
Sixty years later, let the media heed those words, and stick to that.