The rise of opinion journalism, not just among cable and the newer media but elements of the legacy media as well, magnifies the problem of the dearth of objective news reporting. About five years ago even the Associated Press announced a turn toward opinion, euphemistically referred to as “accountability journalism,” while the Washington Post and the New York Times have for years now been foundering in the stuff.
Makes one wonder where to turn (outside, perhaps, of the business and financial journals) for investigative and feature news that is not in service to some political party, ideology, or special interest.
And what a loss! At the very moment that this country desperately needs an independent, credible, and objective press to describe and chronicle the country’s manifest economic problems, there’s practically nobody in the Fourth Estate who commands widespread trust and respect.
For all the talk about the new media, much of it online, is there anyone so credulous as to believe they’re getting unvarnished facts in a “news report” published by such as Slate, Salon, or the Huffington Post? Or, at the other extreme, by Breitbart, Drudge, or Newsmax?
Nor is there any relief to be found in the product offered up by outlets like Politico, an online journal that has never spotted an issue of such gravity it can’t be covered by resort to rumor, superficiality, and the banalities of horse race journalism.
The complete failure of the media to adequately explain complex policy issues first became unavoidably clear during the presidential election of 2008 when, despite the obvious nature of our economic distress at the time, the media demanded precisely nothing of substance on the subject from McCain or Obama.
This failure has also been a persistent feature of the coverage since of the Affordable Care Act, sequestration, the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing,” and unemployment. A recent headline from Mediaite, summarizing a new Pew poll, put it this way: “Biased, Frivolous, And Liberal: Poll Shows Most Americans Still Distrust The Media.”
A number of academics have aided and abetted the collapse of objectivity as a journalistic standard, premising their arguments on the sophomoric notion that objectivity isn’t attainable. Of course it isn’t attainable if there’s no interest in attaining it, but it’s not like objectivity is a Zen koan or some such. What’s required is editors who are smarter and tougher and more fair-minded than the reporters who work for them, and owners who care about the editorial product itself and not just the ads the editorial product attracts.
The need for objective news reporting grows in proportion to the number and kinds of societal problems, especially those with an important economic element. Take, for instance, the recent scandals centering on the actions of the IRS.
For most political reporters, and most politicians, the targeting of conservatives by that agency is only of real importance if it can be shown that the president or senior administration officials ordered it. But that’s just exactly backwards. The targeting is vastly worse if there was no Administration input; if, instead, these were just the acts of a politicized bureaucracy.
Indeed, the accuracy and value-free qualities of government data collection and government-supplied information are indispensable to this or any well functioning democracy. Whole markets, after all (not to mention laws and regulations) turn on the truthfulness and clarity of data such as that supplied every month by the Commerce and Labor departments.
A story posted on Aug.11, by Bloomberg reporter Jonathan Weil, adds a wrinkle to the subject. According to Weil, the Justice Department admitted to having grossly overstated the number of mortgage fraud cases the department had filed as part of a multi-agency Mortgage Fraud Working Group. Weil characterizes the false numbers originally given out as appearing to have been “willfully filed,” and only belatedly corrected because of the pressure put on by some other Bloomberg reporters.
In the larger scheme of things, this particular example of governmental malfeasance is probably not going to bring down the Republic, but the point of it all is to say that if the nation’s news media were to multiply Bloomberg’s reportorial effort by, say, a hundred (or a thousand) additional examples, the media might resurrect their own faltering reputations, and help sustain our democracy in the process.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.