The media has faults, but having flaws does not make something valueless. Imperfections do not require casting something aside. If they did, we’d all be in trouble. Because none of us are perfect.
Welcome to the second part of my two-part blog on the media. In part 1, I made the case for the media always having been faulty. Its flaws of today do not differ much from those of the past.
Which naturally raises some important questions. If it has always been so bad, then what good is the media? And how do we deal with the bad?
In what follows I am going to dig into the ways media helps us. I will also point out various safeguards the public has against the media’s flaws. Here’s a hint. The biggest safeguards are ourselves and how we choose to handle the information we take in. I’ll even give out some tips in that regard.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
WHY MAKE A CASE FOR THE MEDIA BY POINTING OUT ITS FLAWS?
If I am arguing that the media has worth, why then spend an entire blog pointing out that not only does it have faults, but that those faults have always been part of its makeup?
I pointed out the faults because they exist. To deny they exist would not lead to an honest assessment. And would be an unfair dismissal of people’s legitimate complaints. You take issue with how the media covers things? I can’t and won’t tell you are wrong to have concerns.
But I also pointed out the faults to show to you that they have always been there. The development is not new.
I point them out to show that, just because our current society seems to have suddenly discovered that the media is a cracked gem, does not mean that the media has not been functioning just fine, despite those cracks, since before we came along.
I also point them out to show that nostalgia for the virtues of the media of the past probably ignores its past faults. I get wistful wishing for more Murrows and Cronkites myself. But the media has never, ever been perfect. It’s never been a shining beacon of virtue. It has always had warts and blemishes. Just like the rest of us. Humans made it. So, go figure. It’s human too.
Today’s complaints against the media did not simply arise fully formed in today’s world. They have been lingering shadows over the press for quite some time. This old cartoon from 1888 presents, as ills of the media, a lot of the same stuff we are complaining about in 2017.
THE FAULTY MEDIA WAS STILL USEFUL TO THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE US
Yet throughout, people have continued to find value in the media. They did so in the past. Even though they lacked some of the things we use today to offset the media’s failings. Like the internet’s connectivity and fact-checking tools. And our ready access to so many other information sources. Or the concept of journalistic ethics. That those from the past did find value back then, despite the circumstances, is a strong indicator of the media’s continued usefulness today.
Despite a lack of journalistic ethics. Despite not being able to readily fact check. Despite not having the ability to see what all the other media sources are saying. Despite the lack of instant access. Despite the ability to verify with others around the world, who may have a different perspective on events. Despite dealing with all of those challenges along with the same old complaints we have about the media to this day.
Despite all of that, our forbearers still got something out of the news. The media still provided them with something worthwhile. If media could be worth something with all those shortcomings back then, it definitely is worth something now.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER? THAT OLD CHESTNUT? REALLY?
So, I obviously argue that, for all the media’s faults, it still has value. But what is it?
Knowledge. Information. Tools that allow us to make better decisions in our life. Tools that allow us to be better citizens. But also, vigilance. Accountability. Leverage where we would have none.
Without some form of the media, I most likely would have only a small idea of what is going on in the greater metro-area in which I live. I would have even less information about the nation at large. And probably almost none about the greater world around us.
I would not necessarily know about scientific developments. Medical advances. Or what is going on with bills my state legislature seeks to pass. Bills that may directly affect my life.
Even if I believe I have limited ability to influence all the events happening that may affect my life, knowledge of them allows me to plan for ways to deal with them. That knowledge often starts with the media.
Admittedly, through the mere act of reporting, the persons reporting are, in their own ways, controlling the public’s access to information. However, we need to keep in mind, without the reporting, we would have no information.
It is not a question of no information is better than misinformation.
Ignorance does not lead to bliss. It leads to driving off cliffs.
BEFORE WE CAN MAKE DECISIONS WE FIRST HAVE TO GET INFORMATION
Information is key to our existence. The media is our main source for new information about events and developments going on in our world right now.
Maybe it has to be filtered a bit. All information does. That is part of how this whole “being a human being with frontal lobes and reason” thing works. We take in information, filter and process it, and then use it.
Not sure what I am getting at? Let’s look at some examples of information filtering:
Information input: That stove radiates a lot of heat.
Filter from past experience: Really hot things can hurt me.
Application to information input: I won’t put my hand on the stove while its hot.
Information input: I hear that being struck by lightning can be really bad.
Filter: Lightning occurs during thunderstorms.
Application: Maybe I don’t want to be outside during a thunderstorm.
Information input: Ugh! Coffee tastes bitter.
Filter: I don’t like bitter tasting things.
Application: I will add sugar to my coffee. (Or just not drink it.)
We all go through this process in order to make decisions. Information acquired. Information processed. Information used to make a decision. You. Me. All us humans. But first we need the information. And, when it comes to information on things with which we don’t have direct contact, the media provides it.
MEDIA GETS US THE INFORMATION WE WOULD NOT OTHERWISE BE ABLE TO ACQUIRE
At the media’s core are people scrutinizing the players and digging deeper into events. That’s vital. These people go to the locations. They conduct interviews. They crawl through archives. And they report back to the vast majority of us who have neither the time, nor resources to do any of that for ourselves.
As individuals, none of us could gather all this information on our own. And information is central to making good decisions about our lives. Again, that’s a key part of being a human.
I keep emphasizing it because it is such a core concept of human existence. Taking in information and processing it to make decisions.
In our fast-paced, pressed-together-like-sardines-in-a-tin world, we need lots of information on all sorts of things. Thus, we need the media.
As they investigate and report back, those core people at the heart of the media shed light on things we may not have known.
True, some of it may be stuff we don’t really need to know. However, I like to think of the process as fishing by casting out a net.
Some of the things gathered in the net may be useless. I don’t really need that old boot, or that twig. Similarly, I really don’t need to know that celebrity dressed up her lapdog in a pink bow, a polka-dotted tutu and neon nail polish.
But, if the net is not cast, I get no useful fish at all. I don’t learn that my property taxes may change, or that oranges may be priced at a premium due to crop problems.
For all its faults, the media brings us useful fish among the useless junk. Given how important useful information can be, we need the media to keep casting for it.
The media essentially act like the hunter-gatherers of the information the rest of society’s members need for sustenance. Like you and me.
GUARDIANS AT THE GATE
We also need the media to be the “watcher of the watchmen”. To keep investigating and digging into matters the average person has no ability or time to do. To help us hold accountable those who should have accountability to us.
“The devil’s aversion to holy water is a light matter compared with a despot’s dread of a newspaper that laughs.” – Mark Twain, “The American Press,” as printed in Mark Twain: Press Critic, University of California, 2003. (From Barbara Schmidt’s website: www.twainquotes.com.)
Witty, isn’t it? Any perceived applicability to the current political situations is coincidental. And also a testimony to the truth of the quote’s underlying premise. But whether it is with mockery or merely exposure, the press’ ability to shine a light and hold accountable is nothing trivial.
When a candidate makes statements that are easily proven as false, that should be exposed. When a CEO tells a blatant lie, he should be called out. We need the media to help us do that.
We needed the investigative reporting into Watergate. We needed the investigative reporting into the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic diocese in the Boston area. We need to know about Takata airbags. And faulty car tires. And fraudulent emissions tests. These things, as difficult or painful as they sometimes have been, needed to be brought to greater public attention.
I didn’t like them. I did not want them to be true. It did not make them fake. And we are better off knowing about them then sticking our head in the sand because we don’t like what’s being said.
WATCHDOGS PROVIDE PUBLIC LEVERAGE
Further, those who need to be held accountable need to know they are not only being watched, but also that they will be investigated. Yes, it may mean a cover up. But it also means even more never start something in the first place for fear that they will eventually be caught. The media can provide the public with leverage, that it otherwise would not have, over the behavior of those that serve it.
I have realized lately that leverage is an often-overlooked but very important tool. Our world is large. Our populations huge. And economies and communities are more widespread but interdependent than ever before. As a result, there are many times when the power of the public is diluted. Or impotent.
What is the power of a town’s people over a national or international corporation? What is the power of a rural population to the larger numbers of the cities? There are too many places, too many times, and too many ways that the public, or segments of it, does not have sufficient leverage to bring about change, or accountability that the public needs. In this day and age, the laborers rarely have sufficient leverage to bargain fairly with their employers without the help unions provide.
The press’ investigations expose wrongs and bring things to the light. Things the public would not and could not otherwise know. In bringing the information to the public en masse, the public en masse has the ability to affect the situation in ways a smaller community could not.
One or two might complain about the dumping of chemicals into the local river. They may be the only ones to see it. But if the media gets a hold of it, and exposes it, then the whole community knows. And the whole community can bring pressure for action in ways one or two folks could not.
INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING INTO DRUG COMPANIES AND THE OPIOID CRISIS
Let’s look at one recent example of the media providing us with needful information and acting as the watchers scouting in the darkness for the rest of the population.
In October 2017, the Washington Post and 60 Minutes revealed the results of their investigative journalism into the opioid crisis this nation faces. They reported on the drug companies’ influence exerted on a few Congresspersons, members of the Justice Department, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Which served to get laws passed or lax enforcement of laws in furthering the drug company profits while the opioid crisis grew. In short, they made it worse and bigger. All for profits. And used their money to ensure that things continued that way.
When the story broke, so did an uproar. I think many people suspected something like it was going on, but only in that vague “I don’t trust big corporations or big government” kind of way to which most of us subscribe to some degree. In other words, we may not have been surprised that something terrible was going on. But what it was, the extent of it, how it was done, and so on, were entirely unknown to any of us. And without actually knowing what is going on and how it is going on, little can be done about it.
So as a result of the media, we obtained information and understanding of a serious situation affecting us. Information we would not have known except for the media. Information that now can be used to hold people accountable and make constructive changes for the better.
It also served to give leverage to those of us not in power. Prior to the story coming out, President Trump nominated Representative Tom Marino for Drug Czar. Who is the Drug Czar? He or she directs the drug-control policies in the U.S. It’s an informal title for a very serious position. Especially in the middle of a drug crisis triggered by prescription drugs.
According to the story, Tom Marino was also one of the Congresspersons who, under the influence of drug company money, introduced and backed legislation that undercut the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to affect matters in areas troubled by the growing drug problems triggered by overprescribed opioids.
Marino’s nomination, it turned out, was like asking the fox the guard the henhouse.
One can point out that the Trump administration has made many such nominations. But the media’s reporting in this instance stopped such a nomination from going through. Initially, Trump waivered on whether to withdraw Marino’s nomination. But eventually, due to the pressure caused by the information the media had exposed, Marino stepped aside.
NOT ALL MISINFORMATION IS THE SAME
Like everything else in this world, the media is not a perfect system. Shocking, coming from me. I know.
You may have encountered a pithy little phrase. “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” While often attributed to Mark Twain, it appears highly unlikely he actually said it or anything like it. Especially given that he was a newspaper man himself.
Like many pithy little phrases, it’s cute, but it oversimplifies and relies on assumptions.
I have already addressed that fact that “no information” is not a good road to go down. Cliffs, remember?
Another assumption by the pithy little phrase is that all information from the media is wrong. That is patently false.
Today, you may argue about the validity of investigating whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, or how much Russian interference may or may not have affected election outcomes. But most of the media’s reporting as to the fact that Russian interference occurred, in general, in the U.S. 2016 presidential election has been born out as accurate.
Further still, there are levels of misinformation, not all of which are “fatal.”
BIAS IS NOT NECESSARILY BAD
But first, since conveying misinformation is often linked to spin or bias, I am going to take a moment to talk about bias.
Bias in the media seems to be a pretty big concern of people today. I don’t take it lightly. I imagine touching on it multiple times in future blog articles. Right now, I am just covering some basics.
Remember. Bias does not necessarily rise to the level of misinformation.
Remember. Bias is always present to some degree. It is impossible to get away from it.
Remember. We take in information and process it. We’re humans. That’s pretty much what we do. But we cannot do so absent our own bias. In fact, processing information is actually the application of our bias.
Let’s say that I have grown used to feeling a specific pain in my joints before it rains. Now say I experienced that same pain again. My bias in this regard would lead me to predict that it will rain soon.
Now let’s say my bias may be that I am certain red cars get pulled over more frequently by the police than cars of other colors. So, I chose to buy a non-descript greyish, silver car. Because who wants to really get stopped by the police?
My bias may not be accurate. But I do not really suffer harm by choosing not to buy a red car. Nor do I really suffer harm by inaccurately predicting rainfall.
Bias, therefore, is not automatically a bad thing.
Nor does it always lead to falsehoods. I could be right about the rain. I could be right about red cars.
In order to report events, information must be taken in and, through the act of reporting, has to be processed.
Thus, any observer of events exhibits some level of bias when reporting on them. Even Aunt Margaret, when she reports on the doings of her neighbors. She may write you an account peppered with her insights on what she observed. She may choose, deliberately or unconsciously, to emphasize some minutiae over others. But that does not necessarily result in her misrepresenting what happened. Whether Jerome “was always no good”, or Jenny “always had a wandering eye” does not make false Aunt Margaret’s report that Jenny left Jerome to go live with another man.
Reporters are human too. They take in information. They have to process that information in order to write or talk about it so the rest of us can know about the information too. That means that they will apply biases to some degree. Because that’s what processing information means.
That does not mean the reporting is false or misleading. What it means is that the very act of reporting requires the application of some level of bias. Whether it comes from some reporter you don’t know, a close friend, or yourself, all information input has bias applied.
It is inescapable. But not evil. It is just how things work.
And how they should work, actually. That’s part of the same process that allows us to reason and make decisions. A fundamental part of human existence.
GETTING THE RIGHT STUFF RIGHT IS WHAT REALLY MATTERS
Further still, there are levels of misinformation. Most of us have watched movies based on historical events at some point or another. There will never be such a movie, or a documentary for that matter, that will get it 100% right. Or be 100% without some degree of bias. It is not possible.
That said, I am going to use a not so sterling example of historical accuracy. Or, more correctly, inaccuracy. If you were just going by the 1965 film Battle of the Bulge, you might never know several things about the actual World War II battle. Like that it happened during an extremely cold winter. In forests many deemed impassible for a modern army. Instead, you might think it happened in late summer. On the plains.
But there is a difference between an inaccuracy that leads you to believe that a group of planes approached from a different direction than they actually did during the attack on Pearl Harbor and an inaccuracy that leads you to believe that the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.
When relaying information, 100% accuracy is not achievable. Even when we are the first-hand observers. So, third parties, like reporters, are not going to be 100% accurate either.
Getting it all completely right is a great goal. But the important part is getting the right stuff right.
Misinformation is not always intentional. It is not always avoidable. It is not always significant. And it is not always harmful.
What is harmful is blocking ourselves off from all information because we are afraid we might be exposed to some misinformation.
DEFENSES AGAINST MEDIA IMPERFECTIONS
So, let’s look at some ways we can deal with those media flaws.
MEDIA ETHICS AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Contrary to modern laments about the ills of the media, it is always better to seek out information. You can’t get the right answers if you don’t look.
Fortunately, there are some checks and balances on our media. The main stream media can be, to some degree, held accountable to the public. Remember those pesky media ethics. They still exist even if our confidence in them has faded.
That is why the press prints retractions. It apologizes for some stories. And it fires people who employ dubious reporting techniques. That is not a sign the system doesn’t work. That is the sign the system is working . . .because the mainstream media had no choice but to self-correct.
Remember, they are businesses. If they did not have to self-correct, they would not. That would be a waste of money. And the shame caused by the correction could affect sales. So, they self-correct because they have to. Because there is some degree of accountability, at least for the mainstream media.
And they do self-correct. Recently, Brian Ross, a reporter for ABC, reported unvetted and inaccurate information on what Mike Flynn was going to testify about regarding President Trump. ABC suspended him. Other reporters from other media companies have been disciplined for similar conduct in the past few months as well. Papers and news broadcasts make retractions, and correct reporting to make the information conveyed more accurate.
Even more recently, the President issued his “fake news awards.” Almost all of the examples he highlighted were not of actual “fake news.” Instead, most were instances where someone reported something inaccurately, the reporting agency discovered the inaccuracy, the reporting agency corrected the reporting, and, where appropriate, the reporting agency handed down discipline.
None of the corrections were because the President, or others, pointed a finger and said “fake news.” They were all self-corrections. And they were made swiftly. Again, a sign that media ethics do work and serve to protect the public as intended.
PROTECTIONS IN NUMBERS – PLURALITY OF MEDIA SOURCES
Another factor in the public’s favor is the sheer number and different flavors of media sources. All businesses in competition with each other.
Even if every one of them has a bias, those biases differ from one to the next. If all those different biases still generate a generally similar story, there is a good chance the story is fairly accurate. That acts as another public safeguard.
Since there is competition, there is also less likelihood these media sources are conspiring together to peddle falsehoods. That would only help their competitors, not themselves. It’s far better for them to get a scoop instead. To not work with, but rather, around their competitors. Again, this works to the public’s advantage in providing checks to the system.
MEDIA PLURALITY VERIFIES ACCURACY
A recent example comes from the New York Times report that President Trump sought to fire special counsel, Robert Mueller in June 2017. Many media outlets relayed the New York Times report but also independently verified the report using their own sources. In the end the reporting was not just, “The New York Times says this is so”, but rather multiple sources from multiple media outlets also said it was so, including Fox News.
Having the story verified by so many other media outlets serves to give the public a large amount of confidence in the story’s accuracy. Fox News and other media rivals have no vested interest in proving the New York Times’ “scoop” true if it is, in fact, untrue. Those rivals would be better served by exposing the New York Times’ fraud. Therefore, if there was fraud, we the public would know.
PLURALITY EXPOSES INACCURACY
Also, when stories vary, it gives the audience more than one viewpoint on the event. That leaves us less likely to be sold a single line of falsehoods. Yet another safeguard.
Remember how things played out regarding the story that Trump sought to fire Mueller. Let’s look at the flip side.
In December 2017, CNN reported that emails indicated the Trump campaign was tipped off about the emails Wikileaks acquired from the Clinton campaign in advance of their release. In reality, the emails in question discussed the Wikileaks information after it had been released. CNN got it wrong. What happened as a result?
Well first of all, other news sources, such as the Washington Post discovered the error and reported it. The inaccuracy was exposed. The existence of multiple, competing news sources helped protect the integrity of the information circulating to the public. As a result of both journalistic ethics and making good business decisions, CNN then printed a retraction.
Again, this is not a sign that the mainstream media is all “fake news” or that the system does not work. This is a sign the mainstream media can and does police itself in a variety of ways.
Flawless or perfect? No.
Completely faulty, fake and valueless? Also no.
So, in the present day there is some checks on media abuses, despite all our criticisms. And there are some safeguards for the public. The press has some accountability. It is not some runaway train of falsehoods and lies.
THE BIGGEST DEFENSE IS OURSELVES
Which leads to another huge safeguard. Us.
Citizenship in the U.S. was not designed to be a passive matter. We have to work at it. Including having to work not only at actively seeking out information, but also sifting through it. Republics rely on informed decision making. It is an assumed part of some of the core tenets of this country.
MAKING A LIST AND CHECKING IT TWICE
There have always been people who are cautious. Who look with a raised eyebrow and a skeptical eye at reporters and the information they peddle.
We all have to employ a healthy skepticism and “trust but verify” attitude when taking in information. Remember caveat emptor? Remember how you were taught not to trust used car salespersons? That does not mean we don’t buy a used car. It does mean we check under the hood, and we shop around.
Never rely on just the headline. Flashy headlines are supposed to grab your attention. They do not always reflect what the article actually says. Always read the whole article.
Fact-check. If a report or a study is referenced, try to find out what it actually says, not just a paraphrase. If a line of a speech is quoted, try to find the rest of the dialogue. Try to learn the full context.
Find out what other news sources are saying. Remember in part 1 of this blog article when I talked about the supposedly “historic statement” made by Germany? Remember how I checked around to see what other news sites were saying?
Well they weren’t saying anything. That was my first clue that I was dealing with a misleading article. A warning though. Sometimes you have to give things time. Keep in mind that when news first breaks, it may take a bit for other news sources to catch up.
Research the origins of the source you are relying upon. For example, was the website created to put forward a particular agenda? Does it have a reputation for reporting accurately?
Find out the actual credentials of experts cited.
Try to sift through which parts of the reporting are spin, which are opinion and which are recitations of fact.
However, again, you will have to wait for those sites to do that fact checking and report back. So, if they don’t have anything up right away, that does not mean they won’t have something later. Check back.
Don’t just rely on headlines at those fact checking websites either. You still need to look at the whole article. That’s where the fact-checking details are. Often things aren’t as simple as “true or false.” We can find the more accurate view by looking at the subtleties.
Going back to the original report, look at who is reporting and how. By that I mean, if you see an article, and only non-mainstream media sources are reporting it, that’s a red flag that maybe that reporting is not on the up and up.
If you see a story from multiple non-mainstream media sources, ask if those sources all tend to have the same slant. Are they all Conservative? Are they all Liberal? Are the all “small government”? Are they all “big government”? Hold off on relying on that reporting until more reporting of the same thing comes from sources with a different slant. Especially sources with an opposing platform.
Check if the wording in the headline and text appears very similar, if not the same, from article to article. If so, that is a really good sign that this is not independent reporting. It is more likely one article that has been copied and repeated with only a few tweaks by the others. It makes it look like a lot of folks are reporting a story and that it has many sources, when, in fact, it only has one. That too is a red flag that the article is probably not very reliable.
These are just some cursory suggestions. I plan to go into some of them in greater detail in other blog articles. But for now, this basic list serves as a start.
IF THE MEDIA COVERED UP AN EVENT, HOW DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT IT?
I have encountered many arguments from people and seen many memes that complain about media bias and media cover ups by citing an event and claiming the media did not cover it.
The person making the argument usually did not witness the event. Instead they are just a member of the public at large. Yet somehow, they knew enough about the event to not only mention it but also claim to have enough information to prove a media cover up. But that raises an important question.
If the media blacked out the event, how did Joe or Jane Average come to know about it at all? Simple. They learned of it from the media. So, no media cover up, after all.
What’s worse, most of the time, I have heard of the event too.
That means that, even assuming the arguer’s media sources on the event were not mainstream, those sources still covered the event.
But it also means that my more mainstream media sources covered the event as well. And covered it prominently enough for me to remember it. So mainstream or not, and regardless of slant, the media still covered the event. Neither of us could know about the event if there had been no coverage. Yep, definitely no media cover up.
PEEL BACK LAYERS; LOOK BENEATH THE SURFACE
However, such arguments serve as a reminder to us. It’s not just about fact-checking or getting a second source. It is also about digging beyond initial and lead reporting.
With print newspapers, that meant making sure we read more than just the front page. With local television and radio news reports, that meant sticking around through the entire broadcast. In the current era, it means doing the same or the equivalent with other sources as well.
If the 24-hour news cycle only gives brief mention of a story about a bombing in the Middle-East before moving on to devote most of its time to potential U.S. political scandals, then dig further into that bombing online. Maybe the splash pages of particular press agency’s websites don’t mention it. But it is there somewhere.
We have so much information that can be published at the same time now. There is not time or space to shine a spotlight on all of it. Or else shining a spotlight would serve no purpose. But the story is there. We don’t have to be ignorant of some of this information unless we choose to be.
And keep following the story. As more information comes out over time, your understanding of the event may change.
I remember local reporting on the events at the World Trade Center on 9/11. I was driving in my car. The local non-news radio stations were just seeing ticker reports. They gave people updates but were clearly unaware of the magnitude of what had happened. If all I had ever heard had been that initial reporting, I would have thought that a small plane had crashed.
As the folks got more information from their ticker, they updated their listeners with grave, stunned, hollow voices. And the rest of us learned of the enormity of what had just occurred.
We always need to be aware that as new details emerge, what the story means will evolve.
Don’t stop at just the surface. Dig deeper to the “back-page” stories. And keep checking back for further developments.
PROTECTING THE MEDIA FROM UNDUE INFLUENCE
Another safeguard is to protect the flow of information from muzzling and government influence.
Governments have interfered with and controlled the press in the past and continue to do so throughout the world today. In fact, outside the U.S. that is the kind of thing people tend to mean when talking about media bias. They are talking about media pressured, controlled, or regulated by the government.
The result is only one story being told. The one with the best possible spin for the government. That leads to decisions and opinions based on only a limited number of facts, and a limited view of them. That can lead to dangerous and devastating consequences on the small and large scale.
As I discussed above, having only one line of information leaves the public susceptible to manipulation, while variety within the media helps serve to safeguard the public consumer.
We have seen the effects of propaganda -based media play out before. And let’s face it, that’s what state-controlled media is. State propaganda. But even when it’s just state influenced, this kind of media reporting does damage.
PROPAGANDA PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR WORLD WAR
One of the contributing factors to World War II was propagandized reporting during World War I. In Germany, reporting back home of how the war was going was deliberately optimistic. For the good of country moral, people did not necessarily understand how badly things were going for Germany on many fronts. Especially as the war drew to a close.
This resulted in a public susceptible to certain arguments. Like the idea that the German government, under the influence of a Jewish conspiracy, had betrayed the German army. That seemed reasonable to people.
Why else would Germany have capitulated to the terms of Armistice in such a humiliating fashion? It had to be some kind of craven governmental betrayal for personal gain, and contrary to the good of Germany. The German military had not suffered defeat, according the reporting people had received. The war was therefore not going that badly. There was no need to cave so completely to France and Great Britain’s terms unless there was betrayal of the army at the top.
Except none of that was true. The German army had suffered numerous losses, but they were not widely reported. The German army and the German economy were teetering. And that was why France and Great Britain felt they had the leverage to stick it to Germany hard in the peace process. And Germany felt the country really had no choice but to accept it.
But the German people did not have all the information they needed about that process. It left them vulnerable to arguments by those seeking power in the wake of the Armistice. Including arguments like those made by Adolf Hitler. Public support of those arguments saw he and his political party rise, and led, inexorably to World War II.
Was it comforting during a time of crisis to be reassured that all was well? I bet it was. But, as seen in Germany, and other places throughout history, a single line of propaganda-based reporting leaves the public vulnerable to manipulation. And makes good decision making hard.
WHAT THE NATION’S FOUNDERS REALIZED
The founding fathers of the U.S. thought we should take a different approach to muzzling the media. They gave a big fat “No” to government interference with, or influence on, the press.
The founding fathers, like any other leaders, were hounded, criticized, and, sometimes, smeared by the media. Yet, they recognized that there is a huge value to protecting a free press right up there with free speech.
In a 1792 letter, George Washington argued the value of the press, noting, “From the complexion of some of our News-papers Foreigners would be led to believe that inveterate political dissentions existed among us, and that we are on the very verge of disunion; but the fact is otherwise . . . but this kind of representations is an evil which must be placed in opposition to the infinite benefits resulting from a free Press.”
For those who may need a translation into something a bit more modern, what George basically said was: “Based on what U.S. newspapers say, foreigners could assume that there is deep-rooted political dissention among us, and we are on the verge of falling apart as a nation, but that’s not true. . . .Such representations by the press are an evil that must be weighed against the infinite benefits that result from having a free press.”
George Washington found the media guilty of false and misleading reporting, which he called an evil. Yet he still thought the unending benefits of having a free press far outweighed the evil. And again, this is not a press that had the journalistic ethics or the ability to be called out on facts like today’s media. So, with an even worse media, George Washington still thought this free press business was the right way to go.
The founding fathers codified that realization of the media’s value. The First Amendment added to the U.S. Constitution, i.e., the first of what became known as the “Bill of Rights”, states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Amendment was number one for a reason.
THE NATION’S FOUNDERS HAD MORE REASON TO ATTACK THE PRESS THAN TO PROTECT IT
Those that drafted, proposed and ratified that Amendment were prominent, influential, and powerful. They were celebrities. They were ripe targets for the press to skewer. They knew firsthand the faults of the media. And felt firsthand the sting of a fickle press eager to sell to its audience. A press with far less journalistic scruples than the mainstream media of today.
Yet our founders provided protections for the press, right along with guaranteeing the rights to free speech, and to peaceably assemble. Those three things right there were deemed by governments of the time to be very dangerous. That’s how revolts started. How governments were overthrown.
The leaders of this new nation could have easily gone in the opposite direction. To not do a thing about those rights, in order to allow them to be quashed later in case this new nation proved too unstable. They could have chosen to protect themselves, their reputations, and their power. But they thought protecting the citizenry was more important.
The First Amendment promises freedoms to the public. Free speech. A free press. Freedom of assembly. And the right to demand the government address and fix grievances. Through these rights, the First Amendment also effectively preserves the public’s right to actively question and challenge the government.
As a republic, it is only through the people’s active involvement that the government can continue to serve and to change to properly meet the needs of its citizens. So, the nation’s founders preserved the public’s rights to do so with that Constitutional Amendment.
The founding fathers also believed one of the key factors to the people’s involvement in their government was having a free press. You cannot properly challenge problems in the government through speech, assembly, or petitions without information. And the free press provides the information.
Most of those drafting and ratifying the First Amendment also would have balked at codifying protections for specific businesses in the Constitution. Yet that is exactly what they did in guaranteeing a free press. They did not do it to protect business-owners or corporate interests. They did it because, despite the media always trying to sell us on its product, they recognized media also has a clear value to the populace.
LEARNING TO ACCEPT THE MEDIA LIKE THE NATION’S FOUNDERS DID
You cannot guarantee freedoms without accepting that you will also be allowing in the lowest denominator. You cannot have the good without accepting there will also be the bad. You have to assess whether the benefits outweigh the harms. That’s what the founding fathers did. And that is what I am asking you to recognize.
You cannot have free speech without accepting that means some people will use it to disagree with you. Or to spew hatred. Or intolerance. Or unfounded conspiracy theories.
Likewise, you cannot have a free press without accepting that will include some bad journalism or biased reporting. If there is good, there will be some bad. But the good is very much worth it.
ACCEPTANCE STILL ALLOWS ROOM TO QUESTION
One more thing about that First Amendment. It not only provides a means to keep the government in check. It also provides a means to help keep the media itself in check. That free speech and freedom to assemble allows the public to challenge the government. It also allows the public to challenge the media. And we should.
I do not love the media. I do not wholeheartedly trust it. I do accept it and the role it plays.
I do believe we, the audience, need to be active, not passive, in our information consumption. We need to examine what is being said critically. We need to fact-check. We need educate ourselves on the bigger picture. We need to sift through the various spins. We need to challenge the media to “get it right”.
Does that put a burden on us when it is the media that is “getting it wrong”? Yes. And, yes, that seems unfair. However, active involvement has always been part of the deal for being a U.S. citizen. Actively keeping others who should know better, or act better, in check has always been on the table.
Look, we all know that we don’t get a say in all the things that get thrown at us in life. We can’t assure the weather so our vacation is sunny. We can’t will our favorite sports team to victory (no matter how much we want to believe we can).
But we do get a say in how we handle ourselves. We can choose to take in the information the media throws at us passively. Or we can choose to be proactive in our media consumption. To think critically. To scrutinize. To try to see the big picture, even if we don’t like where things are going. To protect ourselves by trying to get the best information and making the best decision possible with it.
Remember, actively getting informed about the things in your life is a good thing. For example, we go to the doctor and receive a diagnosis. We are usually better off also checking further into that diagnosis.
Maybe that means a second opinion. Maybe that means getting more information so we can ask more questions of the original doctor. Ultimately it leads to taking an individual course of action better suited to our specific health situation.
I am not talking about doing it because doctors should be distrusted. Or because you should always be on the lookout for malpractice. Or because you should fear “Big Medical” or “Big Pharma.” We should do it simply because we benefit from a deeper knowledge of what is going on. That is true as individuals. That is true as a community.
A lot of the media criticism we have today is the same the founding fathers had. And yet they enshrined the rights to a free press in the first Constitutional Amendment. U.S. citizens have a right to criticize institutions for their failings. However, entirely rejecting the media for its failings would be a mistake that leaves us uniformed and susceptible to manipulation.
Instead, seek to recognize the media’s faults. Then incorporate that recognition into your information filtering process. Above all, don’t use those faults as an excuse to take an even a narrower view. Instead, keep gathering information from multiple sources. Broaden your perspective. And expand your focus.
You don’t have to love the media. You don’t have to completely trust it. But you should try to accept that it does serve a real purpose. It does provide a real value. Challenge it to do better. But don’t discard it. Accept it for what it is, take the things of value it has to offer, and use it make better choices for yourself.