Upon receiving word President John F. Kennedy had been pronounced dead, Walter Cronkite removed his glasses and shed a single tear as he reported the news to America. Cronkite was chastised for his emotional/partisan display, because — back then — a journalist’s opinion was never to be injected into a story.
No journalist in history has ever been entirely objective — such is an impossibility of human nature. However, at no point in the history of information gathering and dissemination has partisanship been so flagrant. Conservatives like to pretend FoxNews isn’t biased, and liberals do the same with MSNBC. However, I’m not about to state the obvious, because there is a greater evil than biased journalism, and that is journalism devoid of journalism. In short, today’s journalists aren’t very good at their job.
Math has no bias
Three recent examples illustrate the flaws in the fifth estate. We’ll begin with the FoxNews coverage of the election, specifically the network’s reaction to a madman in deep denial. Everybody on the left had a good laugh over Karl Rove, but the incident left me sad. A network purporting to be a news gathering organization had supposedly collected the facts, done the math, rechecked the math, then reported Barack Obama as the winner once he had acquired Ohio’s electoral votes. What happened next was the aforementioned source of comedy, as Rove refused to accept the news. It was at this moment that the journalists of FoxNews ceased to be journalists. Rove offered no facts at all — nothing to back up his assertion that the news was wrong, but instead of dismissing Rove’s baseless accusations and ushering him off the set, FoxNews was compelled to treat his opinion as a valid “side,” and was therefore obligated to present his side along with the side backed up by the truth. They had to give equal time to a bitter old man, only they didn’t have to.
Nate Silver is the new “it” guy in the media because he uses math. That’s really kind of sad. He merely used basic addition and division to combine polling data to determine the most likely result based on those numbers. I followed Silver’s 538 blog studiously throughout the ’08 campaign, and I was skeptical when he aligned himself with the Times a few years ago. I should have known better; math has no bias. Yet the media reporting his data felt compelled to pair it against a single poll, or – even worse – some prognosticator with no actual data.
There are two sides to some stories, but other stories have one side, while still others have multiple sides. By the logic of offering equal time regardless of circumstance, the media should consider Charles Manson’s ideas no less credible than — well — a sane human being. Some viewpoints, the ones that have no basis in reality and no facts to back them up are to be dismissed before clouding the issue. The birthers, the 9/11 truthers, and the UFOlogists don’t belong in a legitimate news gathering organization. To summarize this point: Nobody should ever listen to anything Donald Trump says.
Rumors are only good if you are Fleetwood Mac
The second example of flawed journalism is more recent and more cruel. Several months ago, a man came forward alleging Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, had engaged in a sexual relationship with him when he was still a teen. Months of investigation uncovered no evidence of this, but when TMZ was poised to leak the rumor, supposedly more reputable journalists took that as a cue to report it in mainstream media. The USA Today and The Detroit Free Press openly lied when they ran headlines which stated Clash had been charged with a crime. No charges were filed. No charges will be filed. In order to be first, journalists didn’t bother to be journalists. This time, that means they didn’t bother to check the facts.
When I studied journalism in college, I was told in order for a fact to be reportable, it must be verified by three independent sources. For the record, stating, “ABC News is reporting that CNN is reporting that TMZ is reporting Elmo is a pedophile…” is not using three sources. It is using a single source with all the credibility of my back acne. Yesterday, Kevin Clash announced he was leaving his dream job — the media destroyed his career with allegations and rumors. And the media seemed to take pleasure in being the first to destroy a man’s reputation.
Don’t fart if you don’t have the sh*t to back it up
The final example is the most tragic and most frightening. One of the biggest stories of the last month was the terrorist attack on a US embassy resulting in several deaths. It was a major news event with geopolitical repercussions that will be felt for months if not years. The problem is the event in question occurred on the other side of the world, and — despite news organizations claiming to bring you the world in 22 minutes, budgets and bureaus have been cut, meaning there were no experts on-scene. So when the White House and the State Department issued statements the attacks were brought about by a cheesy, unwatched YouTube video, every news organization in the US ran what was basically a press release word-for-word, no questions asked. In case you hadn’t guessed, the journalists ceased to be journalists because they lacked the manpower and expertise to accurately report on a story. It turned out the attacks were planned out by terrorists who couldn’t care less about what is posted on YouTube.
Most have heard the role of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but I do believe a journalist exists to ask hard questions of important people, to hold them accountable. The entire nation was spoon-fed a convenient lie by both the government and the press. The government did so knowingly, but the press – having nobody on scene to confirm or deny anything – just went along with the party line because they felt it would have made them look bad to admit they lacked the personnel needed to cover the story.
CNN used to have bureaus all over the world, but now they are more likely to use stringers to cover global events – stringers with no proven track record – stringers who won the job by virtue of being on scene with a Skype account. The result is an incomplete story, or a made up story – and those things make news outlets look worse than admitting they don’t have anyone on scene.
The new normal
These are three examples, but they are not isolated. This is the standard now, the new normal. People can blame a 24-hour news cycle, but a journalist isn’t hindered by matters of time. The Watergate scandal didn’t unfold in an hour or a day or a week. The collapse of the Soviet Union unfolded over a decade or more, and the facts are still not yet all in. Even the circus that was the OJ Simpson murder trial was covered more professionally, and that is just sad.
You need a license to practice medicine. You need a license to drive a car. And in both of those cases, the licenses exist to help ensure the safety and well-being of everyone. And yet we don’t require journalistic licenses. Journalists whose words can incite war and wreck someone’s life can be anyone from anywhere. We exist in a wiki-world where everyone’s opinion is equally valid. In case you hadn’t guessed, I find fault in that idea.
Just the facts
A true journalist is an expert in what he or she is reporting. Information is collected from expert sources, and a journalist takes as much time as needed to untangle a complicated issue. The benefit of a 24-hour news cycle is a story can be filed any time of the day or night; deadlines have become almost irrelevant.
To conclude, I’m going to state what ought to be obvious but isn’t. I’m also going to use the word “facts” a lot, so brace yourself. To be a journalist:
- Facts are paramount.
- Facts must be independently verified from multiple sources.
- Facts that cannot be substantiated are not facts.
- Facts based in rumor and allegation are not facts.
- Facts that present a bias do not require another view be presented.
- Facts released by the government are not facts until they have been confirmed.