When we read a story in the newspaper, or watch the news on television there is a collective assumption that what we are seeing or reading is factual and true. We do not expect our information to be tainted by bias and, given the choice, prefer to come to our own conclusions based on evidence presented, without undue editorializing.
Journalists are taught to find both sides of the story, whether they exist or not. We must understand that newspapers and television are not in the business of disseminating news; they are in the business of selling advertising, and nothing sells advertising like a good old fashioned controversy.
Witness the reportage on climate science. While 99.97% of climate scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming, the media portray the issue as debateable by continuing to give equal credence to junk science and the opinion of paid hacks, purportedly in the interests of ‘balance’, but the real reason is because it sells. Rupert Murdoch (Fox News) was once asked, “If you could make more money espousing a liberal point of view, would you do it?” His reply was, “In a heartbeat.” It’s a business, not a public service.
The same is true of political reportage. When the government tables a budget and proclaims it as good, editors will break their backs trying to find opinions to the contrary. Politicians play the game as well. The Opposition opposes, no matter what. Party Whips ensure that there is never anything good said about the government. They must be opposed; however silly it sounds. It is imperative that party spokespeople sound decisive and unyielding, and firm in their commitment to the talking points that have been worked by a communications committee in the backroom. In the news game, it’s almost as good as a sex scandal.
Question. If the government is so wrong on everything, then how did they get elected? Do opposition parties believe that the citizens who voted for the governing party are stupid, or just victims of a clever and evil hoax? When was the last time an Opposition Leader went before the cameras and said, “This is a great initiative on the part of the government and we wholeheartedly support it.”? At best they will damn with faint praise, “It’s not bad as far as it goes, but we would have done blah blah blah, which would have benefitted the poor, the hard-working families, small business, rural dwellers, unemployed youth, municipalities…”pick the correct target audience.
This is all so 19th century. It’s not news. It’s opinion, and while opinion is all well and good, when it is passed off as news we slide a little further down the slippery slope to poorly informed, autocratic governance. The old saw that the Fourth Estate was established to speak truth to power, to hold the mirror that reflects the current state of society and protect the public good was never really true, but it plays well as the justification for all manner of pre-digested pap that passes for mainstream journalism.
This is not to vilify journalists. Most graduate from journalism schools with a belly full of fire to take on the power elites and tilt their sharpened lance at the perceived injustices in society. And then they get a job, and have to do end runs around editorial policies that are mandated from the media ownership. I know many fine journalists working the mainstream who publish stories, sometimes under a pseudonym, with independent online organizations; stories that would never be allowed to run at their place of employment. I get calls for background on stories but I’m never quoted. It would be pulled. I’ve had camera crews erase tape in front of me when they learn my affiliation. (“Sorry. We can’t talk to you.” This was said right to my face. I smiled.)
Frankly, I believe it’s well past the time to dock the boat at the 21st century and use fresh eyes to look at where we need to place our efforts to continue as a viable, compassionate and sustainable society. Sitting safely offshore and watching how the tides shift isn’t a workable solution. The media and governments have an important role to play in developing those solutions. If our current slate of political leaders and journalists are unwilling to venture down new paths, then the only road left open to them will be the one that leads to irrelevance.
They will not be missed.