I spent nearly 30 years of my life working as a journalist. It was an honor to be a member of what some have called The Fourth Estate.
I began my career in the Windy City at the Chicago Tribune. At the time, Chicago was probably Journalism’s toughest and most ruthless proving ground. I had just graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. It was a good education, but when I arrived inexperienced and unproven in the cavernous Tribune newsroom, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had a long way to go before I earned my journalistic chops.
Chicago, I quickly learned, was a damned tough newspaper town.
Before I became a foreign correspondent, I worked five years covering every kind of story imaginable: cops, crime, fires, disaster, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I worked the most ungodly hours possible: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., midnight to 8 a.m., and 9 to 5 the hard way (that’s 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.).
Chicago had five competing newspapers when I began my career, and compete they did. You learned to be fast and observant, but most of all, you learned to be accurate and fair. If opinion crept into one of my stories, some crusty, in-your-face editor would let me have it.
“Yates, keep your fatuous opinions out of your stories,” he might thunder. “Nobody gives a crap (or some other suitable expletive) what YOU think. Just keep it fair and accurate.” Then, with his big black pencil, he would eliminate what I was sure was some of my best insightful prose.
Sadly, that is NOT the kind of mentoring (or hectoring) that is de rigueur in today’s newsrooms. The result is often sloppy journalism and stories filled with a reporter’s attitudes, biases, and judgments.
That is NOT journalism. That is propaganda. Joseph Goebbels would applaud the misleading and dishonest stories I see today in newspapers and on network television and cable news shows. So would Pravda, the erstwhile Soviet Union’s disinformation outlet.
It is distressing to see the profession I was once proud of decline into a morass of misinformation, indoctrination, mendaciousness, and bias.
Am I exaggerating?
No, I am not. American journalism is self-destructing right before our eyes as more and more news organizations embrace the concepts of “advocacy” and “social justice” journalism while jettisoning the once noble goals of objectivity and fairness.
Jonathan Turley, an American attorney and legal scholar who often comments on the news media, pointed out recently that biased advocacy journalism is the new touchstone in the media even as polls show that trust in the press is plummeting.
Those polls report that trust in the media is at an all-time low, with less than 20 percent of Americans trusting television or print media. Yet, reporters and academics continue to destroy the core principles that have traditionally sustained journalism and the function of a free press in our society. Turley said that writers who have been repeatedly charged with false or misleading columns are some of the greatest advocates for dropping objectivity in journalism.
“Now the leaders of media companies are joining this self-destructive movement,” Turley wrote in a recent commentary on the news media. “They are not speaking of columnists or cable hosts who routinely share opinions. They are speaking of actual journalists; the people relied upon to report the news fairly and accurately.
“Former executive editor for The Washington Post Leonard Downie Jr. and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward have released the results of their interviews with over 75 media leaders and concluded that objectivity is now considered reactionary and even harmful.
Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor-in-chief at the San Francisco Chronicle, said it plainly: “Objectivity has got to go.”
“Saying that “Objectivity has got to go” is, of course, liberating. You can dispense with the necessities of neutrality and balance. You can cater to your “base” like columnists and opinion writers. Sharing the opposing view is now dismissed as “bothsidesism.” Done. No need to give credence to opposing views. It is a familiar reality for those of us in higher education, which has been increasingly intolerant of opposing or dissenting views.”
Turley is correct in his assessment of higher education. I spent 13 years as a journalism professor, department head, and dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois and too often witnessed the adherence to “onesideism” when it came to social and political issues discussed on campus. In other words, leftist and liberal opinions were welcome; conservative views were not and were, therefore, not shared with students who were being brainwashed and not educated.
In the Department of Journalism, however, we taught students the critical concepts of journalistic fairness, accuracy, and responsible non-biased reporting. Fairness and accuracy meant getting both sides of any story—not just the side you agreed with. We taught students that while reporters can’t be entirely objective, it is still a goal that they should strive for.
Sadly, many journalism schools today have abandoned those once-venerated concepts.
Columbia Journalism Dean Steve Coll recently complained that the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect “disinformation.”
Whose disinformation? Do you mean information YOU don’t agree with or don’t like?
That any journalism professor would attack the First Amendment is beyond comprehension. The First Amendment is the bedrock of a free and independent press.
In an interview with The Stanford Daily, Stanford journalism professor Ted Glasser insisted that journalism needed to “free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.”
Whose social justice? Yours? Mine? Theirs? Social justice is a vague notion open to multiple interpretations—none of which reporters have any business advocating because one person’s “social justice” may be another person’s “social injustice.”
Glasser rejected the notion that journalism is based on objectivity and added that he views “journalists as activists….”
The Society of Professional Journalists, founded in 1909 and which represents a majority of American journalists, says the following in its Code of Ethics:
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair, and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity. The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media:
- Seek truth and report it
- Minimize harm
- Act independently
- Be accountable and transparent
Apparently, the SPJ is an outlier in today’s newsrooms, and it would appear that working journalists and news media leaders have abandoned that organization’s fundamental canons.
Throwing the quest for objectivity overboard is one of many modern-day examples of violating the principle of Chesterton’s Fence, which posits that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. The quotation is from British author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, in the chapter “The Drift from Domesticity.”
In essence, the principle of Chesterton’s Fence postulates the following:
“Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.” Chesterton went on to explain why this principle holds true, writing that “fences don’t grow out of the ground, nor do people build them in their sleep or during a fit of madness. He rationalized that fences are built by people who carefully planned them out and “had some reason for thinking [the fence] would be a good thing for somebody.
“Until we establish that reason, we have no business taking an ax to it. The reason might not be a good or relevant one; we just need to be aware of what the reason is. Otherwise, we may end up with unintended consequences: second-and third-order effects we don’t want, spreading like ripples on a pond and causing damage for years. Many of the problems we face in life occur when we intervene with systems without an awareness of what the consequences could be.”
In the case of journalism, the unintended consequences of abandoning traditional journalistic principles such as objectivity, fairness, accuracy, and getting both sides of a story mean we are discarding responsible and ethical journalism for the pitfalls of propaganda and deception.
That is not the kind of journalism a democracy needs. Without the free flow of information from all quarters, our republic will not survive as a free nation.
Instead, we will become an autocracy where the only information shared by the news media will be information that has been sanitized by sycophants of the state pretending to be journalists.
And all of us will be politically weaker and intellectually deprived because of it.
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