So many things have gotten better in our lives as baby boomers. But if you look at where we are today, journalism isn’t one of them. BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs was in the business in its heyday… but writes as a Boomer Voice that that day has come and gone.
I’ve been a journalist for 55 years. For most of that time I have proudly defended my profession. Maybe sometimes excessively, maybe sometimes myopically. But by and large, I could always say with confidence that most journalists I knew and most newsrooms I’d seen did the best job they could. That meant that they tried to get it right. Long before Fox News made it trite to say, I honestly argued that the mainstream news media overall was fair and balanced.
I can’t do that anymore.
There is still more good journalism than bad, but there’s more bad than there used to be. More superficial coverage, more sloppy fact-checking, more gratuitous hype, more of an echo chamber where bad reporting still indiscriminately spreads, and more opinion masquerading as news. It doesn’t make me proud. It makes me sad.
And it makes me uneasy, because in this era when millions of Americans are open to a deceitful world of “alternative facts” and closed to a diverse universe of real facts, an honest, healthy, accurate news media is more important than ever. Already more Americans get their news from the likes of Facebook and Stephen Colbert than from the newsrooms on which they used to depend. I don’t see how that makes us smarter.
But to some extent, this is a problem that news organizations have brought upon themselves.
Trying to “get it right” when reporting the news isn’t brain surgery. It means you don’t get lazy; one of the quips in the business is, even if your own mother tells you something, check it out. It means don’t let your biases blend with your story; they belong in an opinion section and nowhere else. It means when you interview someone, you know as much as you can about what they’re going to say before they say it, so you can hold their feet to the fire if they don’t say it straight, and you can press them for more if they don’t say it all. It means you place more priority on getting a story right than on just getting it first; 24/7 access to news has made that harder, but accuracy should drive the process, not competition. It means you don’t assume anything, you don’t advocate anything; that’s not what mainstream journalism is about.
But even at some of our most important news organizations, it’s not what journalism has become.
A few years ago at The Denver Post (where I wrote op-ed columns for many years), the paper’s editor assembled the already abbreviated newsroom staff and announced new cutbacks, saying, “We’ll just have to do more with less.” One of the journalists in the small crowd spoke back, “We can only do less with less.”
That’s part of the explanation for the general deterioration of news coverage. As cable TV news, then the internet, became ubiquitous, everyone ended up with a smaller piece of the pie. A smaller piece of the audience, a smaller piece of the advertising. That led to less money and that led to fewer reporters, fewer editors, fewer fact-checkers. Basically, fewer people to get things right.
It’s a byproduct of the times. Alas.
There’s a small debate going on right now about right and wrong in the media. CNN anchor Jake Tapper won’t invite proponents of Trump’s “big lie” on his show. “If you’re willing to lie about that,” he says, “what else are you willing to lie about? And why should my viewers listen to you?”
Fox anchor Chris Wallace, although not a Fox house conservative, calls that “moral posturing.” He brings Trump’s enablers on the air, and makes them defend themselves. For my money, I side with Wallace. Better to put them on the hot seat than to let their lies go unchallenged. To cite another old Fox bromide, “We report, you decide.”
Skeptics have always found fault and favoritism with how news is reported, and sometimes they have a point, but there’s an explanation for that too. At every level of coverage, from the commitment to do a story to the final form it takes, there are subjective decisions, human decisions, that can’t be avoided. Which stories will you pursue and which will you ignore? Who will you talk to and who will you disregard? Which parts of the interviews will you use and which will you edit out? Where will you place different people’s opinions in the story? What priority will you give the story itself when you deliver the day’s news?
And maybe the most important decision of all is, is it news? Part of the definition of news is, something that people need to know if they want to be informed. But another part is, something that’s a departure from the norm. 99,999 airplanes might safely take off and land every day. It’s the one that doesn’t that makes the news. But that definition is taken to trivial extremes. A cat caught in a tree will win over a man caught in destitution every time. Especially if they’ve got pictures. Cynics in some newsrooms subscribe to the practice, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Perhaps the epitome of sensational over substantive is current coverage of the world’s most famous trans woman, Caitlyn Jenner, who is running in the race to recall and replace California Governor Gavin Newsom. In a piece titled “The California recall is fascinating— especially if you’re an East Coast TV anchor,” Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik catalogued the coverage: “On May 26 alone, she appeared on the set of ‘CBS This Morning’ and the Fox News program ‘America’s Newsroom.’ That followed a May 11 sit-down with CNN’s Dana Bash. And a one-on-one interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity.”
The thing is, Jenner seems uniquely unqualified to be California’s governor. Evidently in her interviews she got the state’s gas tax wrong, she got the state’s reduced representation in Congress wrong, she got its level of job creation wrong. Her most compelling story about the scourge of homelessness was to tell how a man with an aircraft hanger next to hers was leaving the state because he can’t stand seeing the homeless when he walks down the street. By the way, she didn’t vote last November, not for statewide ballot measures and not for president. She played golf instead.
But somehow, she’s worthy of all this coverage?
Recently I heard a fellow journalist describe the business this way: “Journalism means taking something important and making it interesting.” That’s in contrast to doing it the other way around: taking something interesting, slapping “Breaking News” on it, and making it important. Journalism should be practiced with a few fundamental principles: a commitment to the truth, but no commitment to a cause. End of story.
But I’m burying the lead.
Mort Rosenblum, the former editor of The International Herald Tribune, which was long the leading global English-language newspaper (and long an arm of The New York Times), recently wrote ruefully about The Times today: “It now strays into misplaced moralizing, advocacy in news columns, (and) sloppy editing.” I’ve watched the same trends myself.
Last month, at the end of the war between Israel and Hamas, The Times’s front page sub-headline said that the casualty toll of the war was “More Than 250 Dead, Mostly Civilians.” Except, it wasn’t. This wasn’t a cat-caught-in-a-tree story. It was the summary of a war. And yet it took a week-and-a-half for the newspaper to correct its error. It finally admitted that it “overstated the death toll in the conflict,” and even more important, that “It is not known whether most of those killed were civilians.”
Then a few days after the careless headline came a careless photo. In a feature called “They Were Only Children,” The Times ran pictures of kids killed in the short war. 69 of them. 67 in Gaza, 2 in Israel (one of whom was an Israeli Palestinian girl killed by a Hamas rocket). The trouble is, a reader noticed that one of the photos, a dead girl in Gaza, was in fact a stock photo from a photo archive service that had been used in another story four years ago. If we can’t believe one picture, how can we believe any?
I’m not picking on The New York Times; I’m one of its 7.8-million daily subscribers. But I am lamenting that if this kind of thing can happen at what has long been called the nation’s “newspaper of record,” which unlike most news organizations has a successful business model and makes a lot of money, it can happen darned near anywhere.
In my own career, I’ve surely made my share of mistakes. But they weren’t because of negligence, or laziness, or a deliberate attempt to put my personal stamp on the news I reported. That’s what it means to try to do your best. That’s what it means to try to get it right.
Today, even at The New York Times, they fall short.
All those explanations for the sad state of the news media today are just that: explanations, not excuses.
That’s because there is no excuse for journalism that isn’t fair and balanced. But I don’t see it turning around. Too many Americans already don’t know who to believe, or where to go to find out. Which leads to uninformed citizens making uninformed decisions.
As if democracy isn’t already in trouble enough.