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A Critique of a “Free” Press in a “Free” Society

Today, more than ever, the press must critically examine itself and stop doing those things that undermine overall credibility.

It sure seems like there is no bottom to the hourly breathless “breaking news.” There is so much “breaking news” that the attempt to convey urgency has lost any impact. We surely need a new go-to banner for those critical news developments that actually should require our attention. Perhaps something like “REALLY BIGLY NEWS” with new dramatic music as a backdrop would attract viewers who are tuning out “BREAKING NEWS.”

This is more important than it may seem. Seemingly obtuse to the consequences, broadcast news has contributed to the “fake news” phenomenon by routinely declaring that some trivial item is “breaking news,” only to have the viewer tune out because there is likely nothing factual being introduced for the first time and certainly nothing so significant that it requires the suggested immediate attention.

It is obvious to me and should be obvious to most that the Trump show has overwhelmed the capacity of the mainstream broadcast media to stick to reporting facts and adding meaningful context to its coverage with fact-based commentary. Broadcast news has pretty much reduced itself to open-ended response to the latest lies from Trump and his cabal, often followed by self-congratulatory commentary about the role of a vigilant press in a free society.

Twitter

The worst symptom of the problem is the tweetification of news reporting, which only further demeans the press. The sight of salivating reporters, news readers and the commentariat on the edge of their seats ready to pounce on each Trump lie to pop up on their phone screen only reaffirms the likely insignificance of what is to come. No “BREAKING NEWS” banner can make the insignificant any more significant or the untrue any more true.

It is way past time for all in broadcast media to stop this game and start doing what real journalists say they do: report facts. While it may be a fact that Trump lies and distorts the truth with impunity, his false and intentionally misleading statements whether by Twitter or otherwise are not news and should not be treated as such. Like the minimal coverage given to Trump’s daily schedule, one simple story a day cataloging each day’s falsehoods and contradictions from Trump and his cabal would suffice.

As a good start, Nicole Wallace of MSNBC stopped reading Trump’s tweets to her audience during a recent broadcast. She said that she could not continue doing this because the tweets were “boldface lies.” It will be worth watching to see how long this lasts and whether anyone else follows suit.

This could actually leave time for in-depth coverage of the daily undermining of governance and America’s institutions, among other critical news stories, that now get obscured by Trump’s web of lies. Irresponsible and capricious leadership itself is not the story. The impact of that leadership and the failure of a principled response is the story. It should be carefully researched, factually reported and unsullied by anonymous sourcing.

I often wonder whether those who report the news and comment on it ever watch themselves on air. I suspect they do, but I also suspect that where I see a sycophant, they see a hero. Beyond the Twittersphere, we can count on some jerk celebrity to suck up most of the rest of the daily coverage. Throw in time spent pimping other shows on the same network and promoting books by their stable of commentators, and there is simply no serious effort being made by broadcast journalism to educate a reluctant public about the factual breadth of important issues of the day. National Public Radio (NPR) tries but too often strays into obscure topics of limited interest.

Advertising Revenue

It is hard to see much of this changing, particularly since present programming in a world of Trump tweets and celebrity misbehavior has driven advertising revenue to all-time highs.  So, once again, corporate America wins and the rest of us lose.

I am not sure what can be done to change the dynamics of daily news coverage. Print media has problems of its own. Anonymous sourcing is as much a curse in print as it is on the air. The recent explosion of good print journalists willing to peddle their commentary on the stories they write has undermined the credibility of their reporting. Add these issues to limited readership and declining advertising, and it is hard to see print media driving any meaningful reform of broadcast media.

Some have suggested that it is time for reporters to boycott briefings from White House spokespersons and cabinet officials with a history of intentionally lying to the press. All too often their “fake news” becomes the story, and the press is left holding a full barf-bag and looking quite the fools. Others have suggested that tweets be carefully fact checked before they are broadcast and ignored when readily proven to contain false and misleading information.

While both of these suggestions have merit, the problem goes much deeper, and the solutions are clouded by both the profit motive and the ego-driven need to be first with something rather than second with something really well done. We are constantly told that a free press is a fundamental element of a democratic society, but there isn’t much discussion of what “free” means in this context. Free from what — corporate influence, political and social bias, government censorship, economic pressure, public indifference or all of the above?

Today, more than ever, the press must critically examine itself and stop doing those things that undermine overall credibility and have created an environment in which a charlatan president can spew his bile while wrapped in a “fake news” cocoon of his own making.

As a starting point, stop using anonymous sourcing as the default position and recognize that “my sources tell me” is a sure sign that the content of the story should be questioned. And stop the now rampant practice of good reporters commenting on their own reporting, sometimes for pay. This sure reeks of a conflict of interest or at least a conflict of content.

Both of these practices are abuses by a free press. A free press that cannot see this will be forever crippled in its struggle to remain free in today’s America.

*[A version of this article was also featured on the author’s blog, Hard Left Turn.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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