(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Editor & Publisher on Friday, Dec. 15. It is reprinted here with permission of the writer, Henry Briggs)
There has been a lot of talk about the decline of newspapers, along with criticism of “The Media”, especially “The Mainstream Media.” In fact, the word “Media” has become an epithet.
And there is some truth to all the derision. Fox “News” and MSNBC, The Washington Times and The Huffington Post, as a few examples, don’t report “news” as much as propaganda. They prefer innuendo over facts, except for those rare occasions when facts support their world view. The writing is catchy and the headlines are attention grabbing, so the reader/viewer gets sucked into a vortex of right or left opinions almost before he/she knows it.
TV and radio take slanted news to new heights. An inflection here, a tilt of the eyebrow there, judicious use of descriptive words (“we have sad news to report tonight,” “a stunning turn of events” and “gunshots rang out!”), and the whole newscast takes on the atmosphere of a bellyache session at the local bar.
Add Trump’s constant accusations of “fake news” and his vitriolic attacks on legitimate news organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, CBS, ABC and others, and respect for real journalists has dropped to the level of … well, I hate to say it, but … Congress.
Consider, for a moment though, the work of legitimate journalists. I’m not talking about powerful, highly paid news people. I’m talking about real reporters at bigger and smaller media outlets, people who work long hours for low pay and focus completely on getting facts right.
Most are pretty idealistic about finding and reporting the truth, not opinions. Their publishers, particularly for the big papers, may assign stories along a particular political path, but good journalists stick to facts. They build stories one fact at a time, verifiable detail after verifiable detail. Good editors check those stories and edit out facts that aren’t corroborated twice. That’s old school journalism. And it’s practiced every day in newsrooms across the country.
Do they make mistakes? Of course. And they publish corrections freely and quickly. But generally they get it right. They cast bright lights into the shadows where bad actors hide like rats in a basement.
One dramatic example of how good reporting impacts our culture was the recent expose of Harvey Weinstein. He was the head of a Hollywood studio that, for years, has produced great movies.
But, in the basement of his soul lurked not just a philanderer, but a fat nasty in his underwear who made exposing himself a predicate to casting women actors. He isn’t alone, of course. Hollywood producers, directors, agents, and others have been doing that behind the scenes since the Hollywood sign first adorned Mt. Lee in LA.
He got away with it for decades. He covered his tracks, and, because of his power, no one in the industry had the courage to stop him.
Until the New York Times published a deep dive into Harvey Weinstein’s dirty little soul.
Investigative reporting is something newspapers have long excelled at. Think of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team exposing the Catholic Church pedophilia or the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation of Tricky Dick. Those stories, and others from papers across the country, have changed the national discourse, not to mention presidents.
Finding and publishing stories like these requires news organizations with heft and conviction, not to mention deep pockets, because bad guys with power are hard to drag into the light of day.
Following the New York Times story, dozens of actresses with similar Weinstein stories took to social media and Harvey tumbled like a false idol. That led to an outpouring of sympathy for women in Hollywood and anger at the Hollywood establishment.
Now there is the “Me too” movement. In a matter of days, the culture is changing across the country.
Because of journalists.
Yes, there are bad actors in the news business. Yes, there is occasional “fake news.” But guess who exposes them? Guess who told the nation about Russia’s interference in our election? Guess who told us about Russia placing genuine “fake news” on Facebook and Twitter?
That’s what journalists do. That’s why we have newspapers and a free press.
For all those people who use the word “media” as an epithet, here’s a question: Where would we be without it?
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