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Journalists – New Media Did Not Kill Journalistic Integrity

The Makings of a Modern Newspaper
Journalists - New Media Did Not Kill Journalistic Integrity

It’s easy for some journalists to suggest that new media is causing the death of journalistic integrity. The truth is more complex.

The decline of journalistic integrity is a regular topic of discussion lately, spanning online communications and dinner party small talk. That is because the definition of journalism itself is evolving, with debates about whether or not various online media properties (like this one) should be included under the umbrella. The “power to the people” media envisioned by the late Andrew Breitbart, and Arianna Huffington has blossomed over the past several years, and now some are seeking to categorize it as “growing like weeds.”

One large complaint is about the rampant bias that we are seeing in news reports, regardless of source. It’s gotten particularly venomous on the media site that claims it is just a platform – Facebook. No matter how much Mark Zuckerberg might want to convince anyone otherwise, he and everyone else must realize by now that his media property has become a news source for many, and that probably isn’t a good thing. The problem isn’t the content that is appearing there, as much as it is the attitude of readers, who prefer to be spoon fed information, instead of questioning the veracity of it before gobbling it down. And the “real” journalists out there are not very happy about that, and have taken to suggesting that we are suffering from a severe decline in journalistic integrity, presumably because there are so many amateurs out there. But, perhaps they have an inaccurate image of the past.

Somehow, we have a hunch that we shall not be hiring Mr. Frank Gannett as a reporter when he is through running for the Republican Presidential nomination. We wouldn’t be anyhow, of course, seeing that Mr. Gannett, in addtion to being a candidate, is the owner of a string of newspapers in New York state. All the same, if he were available as a reporter we should have to think it over seriously before hiring him.

Says Mr. Gannett:

“I have traveled across the country from coast to coast twice in the last six months and have sought to know its sentiments. I make no misleading prophecy when I say that the New Deal will be voted out of power next November whether President Roosevelt heads the Democratic ticket or not.”

Which may be so. And may not be. We have no idea. But in any case it seems to us that Mr. Gannett’s account of the matter is somewhat less than good reporting. He is quite positive about it, leaves himself no loophole. And yet it is plain to us as newspaper men, ought to be plain to Mr. Gannett as a newspaper man, that in the nature of the case he cannot have got an unbiased view as he passed around.

In the nature of the case the boys he has mainly talked to were sympathizers with Mr. Gannett – either Republicans or bitter anti-New Deal Democrats. And all the reports on the other side which he has got must have come through these channels.

It is not a safe way to arrive at dogmatic prophecy. By the same process, Henry L. Mencken, another newspaperman who ought to have known better, arrived at the considered conclusion that even a Chinaman could beat Mr. Roosevelt in 1936. And what happened?

That tirade against bias in the media was printed in The Charlotte News in February of 1940. Subtract talk about the New Deal, and multi-syllabic words that fell out of fashion a generation ago, and Gannett’s words sound eerily similar to another candidate, don’t they? If today’s pundits in print are looking to that era in the hope of pointing out a less biased media, they would be wrong. The media has always been as agenda driven as the leaders they write about for as long as there have been printing presses.

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Agenda driven writing also leads to intentional half-truths and lies being promoted as facts, and while it would be nice to see it stop, our only real defense against it is for the public to start thinking critically about what they read, view and hear. No matter what, there will be people who will believe anything that proves their personal biases. We can only hope that the new trend of considering bad behavior a good trait will end. Even apathy and denial in the face of negative news is better. But, both lead to a general feeling that the press shouldn’t be putting the bad behaviors of some people in the headlines.

A number of citizens recently have asked the editors of this newspaper how to keep out of the paper reports that they have been arrested for driving under the influence, speeding, using drugs illegally, and a few other common offenses.

It is the object of this editorial to give to those inquiring readers precise instructions on how they can prevent the publication of these reports in this newspaper or any other newspaper.

It is very simple.

Do not drive under the influence, exceed the speed limit, or use drugs illegally. It is as simple as that.

J. Russell Wiggins offered that sage advice to his Maine readers in 1979. Then, newspapers considered publishing police blotters a public service, because that attention from the public and press was meant to prevent law enforcement from overstepping boundaries to the point of harassing innocent persons for any reason. The logic was that there would be a standing record in print for someone to use as proof of repeated issues with the police that did not actually involve crimes.

Today, crime reporting is a mainstay, and the goal of too many editors and producers is sensationalism. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is a philosophy that unfortunately has survived, mostly because of advertising revenues. If there will be hand wringing over the decline in journalistic integrity, the advertising industry is arguably a greater threat to accuracy in journalism than even the worst hacks putting words together for any medium.

High officials should be treated with respect, even when their behavior undermines it; for they embody the dignity of their offices. But Bush was plainly acting (and not badly, at that). His anger over the alleged ambush – his complaint that he had expected to be questioned about his educational ideas – was a polished replay of his calculated anger in the recent debate in Des Moines.

There, Bush borrowed a leaf from the Gary Hart press-bashing manual. He assailed the stolid and proper Jim Gannon, editor of the Des Moines Register, for allowing his newspaper to rehash Iran-contra questions he, Bush, claimed he had already answered. He resented this deeply. Wild applause.

Both performances seemed to me about as spontaneous as dancing the lead role in Swan Lake, or playing Hamlet (no, make that Henry V). They were as spontaneous as the arrangement of things on the vice president’s vast, polished, unlittered desk – as spontaneous as the angle at which the framed photo of Ronald Reagan had been turned. Perhaps George Bush keeps the president facing that way, just in case someone drops in unexpectedly with a TV camera.

Look. If George Bush were truly ambushed or double-crossed, as he claimed, if he really thought CBS was wheeling all those monitors, lights, and cameras into his office to ask him about the decline of scholastic-aptitude test scores and such, he should be sent back to remedial poly sci in New Haven, not to the Oval Office.

You simply aren’t invited for big, live, much-publicized interviews on the world’s most-watched news network, in the midst of a campaign, to bandy pull-balls about education. Such naïveté, if real, would disqualify the vice president for dogcatcher, to say nothing of leader of the free world.

And another thing. The switchboards reportedly lit up at CBS affiliates everywhere, and some stations even disgraced themselves by apologizing for Rather’s behavior.

Come on, couch potatoes of the nation, grow up. The press – as, to the considerable disgruntlement of us pencil-pushers, you insist on calling television – is a new game altogether. And your confusion about what was going on in the Bush-Rather clash argues a dangerous innocence. Television isn’t print, and it ain’t beanbag. It is an explosive mass medium in which entertainment values constantly color news and debate and – when political power is at stake – annihilate all sorts of old Gutenberg rules of civility and rationality.

This is true in spades of presidential campaigns. Night after night, candidates scramble for a microsecond of exposure on the network news shows. They pant after the electronic Mephistopheles (in Godfrey Hodgson’s fine phrase), offering that table-turning sound bite that can make or break them in the boondocks of Iowa or New Hampshire.

A bit of Gannon-bashing or Rather-bashing isn’t a spontaneous response to unexpected aggression by the wicked media. It’s a vote-winning device, long ago perfected by Richard Nixon and other great nice guys of politics.

Bush, and all those whose hearts bled for him when Dan Rather was so beastly, should save it for the Red Cross. This raucous and amusing wrangle was great political television, just what the symbiotic media war dance between politicians and television accomplishes on your luckiest day when absolutely everything clicks.

Of course, it also shows how the demands of media politics can degrade two professionals which, in quieter moments, are capable of dignity and even reflection. But never mind that; these are unquiet moments. Rather used Bush, and Bush used Rather appear ill used. It was the usual stuff, raised to the max. Come on, ladies, give me a break.

That was Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., musing on misplaced sympathy for political players, and the shift from print to television journalism during the 1988 presidential election. Oddly enough, those words are still useful today, if one just changes some names, and talks about the shift from television to new media. And that is the point, isn’t it? Things constantly change, but also remain the same. We aren’t facing new problems – just old problems with new names.

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Is it likely that we will ever find a fool proof way to fix journalism? No. Fools are a perpetual and difficult problem – they’ve mucked up the works since long before there was journalism. It is true that we will need to redefine journalism and journalists, if only for legal reasons. Theoretically, anyone who ends up fitting under that umbrella should agree to uphold a basic standard of ethical behavior, which would include reporting information that can be verified by more than one source. Even the high and mighty journalists who are bellyaching now about the sad state of their beloved vocation have been guilty of not doing that, at least in the heat of the moment on “developing” national news stories.

Any promises about being more honest and ethical probably should be taken with a grain of salt, if they don’t include statements about setting aside concerns about appeasing advertisers, though. Remember, news shifted to being “info-tainment” this century, adding to the perfect storm that makes integrity in short supply.

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Liz Harrison
About Liz Harrison 50 Articles
Political commentator, former campaign operative, media executive, legal and medical writer, literary editor and publisher. Founder at Vigilant Liberty Radio, podcaster and radio talk-show host, and a sexual freedom activist.

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