Monday, February 04, 2019

Democracy Dies in Darkness

The video above is the Super Bowl ad for The Washington Post. It talks about what newspapers do, and some of the journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of truth, and ends with the paper’s tagline: Democracy Dies in Darkness. It’s a good ad.

Last year I subscribed to the digital edition of The Washington Post, after considering whether it would be that paper or The New York Times. There was a reason I chose the Post:
…I chose The Washington Post because of the nagging doubts about how easy The New York Times takes it against the current occupant of the White House, for example, never, ever, calling something he said a lie, even when there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he was lying. It makes me wonder what other punches the paper is pulling.
The reality is that no matter the media source, it won’t be perfect. Journalists are human beings and they make mistakes. Sometimes editors make bad decisions. And resources can often negatively affect the quality of the reporting. That’s the place where we all begin our evaluation of news sources.

Contrary to popular belief, most mainstream media sites don’t have a definite ideological position. This doesn’t include opinion pages and columnists, of course, nor does it include Fox “News” which is a propaganda channel, not a real news source. But even Fox will, once in a great while, report a story without displaying its customary biases.

This matters because of the people on the Right, or some who listen to them, repeat the banal declaration that the news media has a “liberal bias”. That’s nonsense for many reasons, but that’s far too big a topic to include in this post. The important thing is that mainstream newspapers, and even most mainstream broadcast and cable news outlets don’t deliberately “slant” the news.

Similarly, it’s a lie and a smear that the mainstream news media report “fake news”. They just don’t. If they did, their audience would see that and no longer trust that news source, and their profits would disappear. That’s because their profits depend on being dependably accurate; if they really did lie, they’d lose everything.

There are two reasons so many people believe the worst of the news media. First, of course, is ideology: The Right has a vested interest in tearing down the news media and the legitimacy of journalism because they don’t want the truth about what they’re up to exposed. The Republican Party has spent decades perfecting their propaganda and disinformation apparatus, and many people—including far too many journalists, actually—fall for it.

The current occupant of the White House has deliberately stoked hatred of journalists and contempt for mainstream journalism. He does that because it suits his agenda, of course, but mostly because, since he’s narcissist, he gets angry when the mainstream news media won’t lie about him and report nothing but nice things and compliments of him personally. He has never attacked Fox “News” which, of course, has never strongly criticised him and always praises him.

The other reason some people persist in believing the worst of journalists is that they do make mistakes. All news organisations have procedures for addressing their mistakes, but those whose minds are already made up in the negative never give journalists credit for that. They want to believe that journalists have a bias and an agenda, so, in their reality, a mistake isn’t a mistake, it’s a deliberate assault on them. It’s personal.

There is a third factor at play in the USA, and that’s the country’s bitterly divided and highly toxic politics. The two sides of the political chasm cannot agree on anything, so it makes sense they project their biases onto others, and, yes, both sides do that. Journalists are caught in the crossfire, trying to report on the truth to the best of their abilities.

It’s important that ordinary people stand up for journalism and journalists. It’s fair to criticise them when they get something wrong, but it is not fair or reasonable to attack them merely for existing, nor to generalise their mistakes as being evidence of bias. We all ought to be able to understand and accept that a story reporting things we don’t like being said, or that point out flaws in the people or policies we favour, is NOT the same thing as those stories actually being wrong. Good journalism should make everyone uncomfortable at some time or other. Instead of getting angry at them, we should instead consider first whether they might actually be right, because if they’re not, it should be easy enough to prove. But when they’re clearly right, we should accept that and move on. And that’s regardless of ideology, party, etc.

Finley Peter Dunne created made a sarcastic description of newspapers, one part of which has become an aphorism about the duty of newspapers: “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. They don’t owe us anything but the truth, whether we like hearing it or not, because it is so important. It’s really true: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

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