Newspapers are guardians of truth, so say journalists
By Warner Todd Huston
Recently, from the pen of editorial page editor of the Seattle Times James Vesely, we got a pretty good indication of why the new media of the Internet is so swiftly taking over the traditional role of the old, dead tree media. One word describes it; arrogance. It is an arrogance of the assumed supremacy of the old media and the air of entitlement that it holds dear. It is the presumption that what they write is "truth," that newspapers are the arbiters of that truth, and that journalists are "democracy" personified and that without them we are naught but a "banana republic." And it is the sneering, discountenance with which they look upon the reading public as the great unwashed that has finally caught up with them. However, some are beginning to notice it and unless the dead tree media realizes this truth staring them in the face, they truly are a doomed industry.
Mr. Vesely wrongly imagines that Americans are not abandoning his beloved, old media in favor of the Internet because of the failed content of the old media. Vesely imagines that people are not "willingly turning from fiber to cyber" as a "replacement of … the methodology of reporting and editing" of the old media. Vesely thinks people are only turning to the Internet because it is faster and more "modern." He imagines that newspapers are "carefully edited" and that they speak truth and, that being true, people can't possibly be turning away from his fellows because of content.
Here is is deluding himself. People are leaving the dead tree media in droves because they simply do not trust them anymore, their "methodology" has become corrupt and self-serving as well as ideologically homogenized all across the industry offering few avenues for differing opinion.
So, why are newspapers in decline? Amazingly, Vesley seems to imagine that the only reason newspapers are declining in circulation is because they are delivered by "a 13-year-old on a bicycle working after school." He thinks the method of delivery is the only reason the old media is in decline.
But what about that Internet, doohickey, anyway? What does Vesely think of it? It turns out he feels it is all just "opinions" that would "befuddle the finest espionage organization" to figure out. Vesely imagines that the Internet is nothing but "rumor."
Foremost, a decent newspaper is the enemy of rumor and a citizen of its place. Blogs are not the enemy of rumor, nor is talk radio or cable television. Rumor is not the substitute for truth, and it takes journalism to sift for truth.
Talk about clueless.
Yes, Vesely imagines that his beloved newspapers have cornered the market on "truth." At least what "truth" is on any given day, change as it may, because "truth is fleeting," or so he claims.
Reporters know that truth is fleeting, and that it changes in the palm of the hand like mercury. For just a moment, something is true. It is true because it is verifiable by other sources and true because of the checks and counterchecks that look for truth amid the haze of events. It was that verifiable truth that kept newspapers coming to the kitchen table.
No, Mr. Vesely, truth is not "fleeting." Interpretations may be, but truth is fixed in fact. But, this claim that truth is "fleeting" is not one that "journalist's" even subscribe to because as a rule the "legitimate" media seems to bend all stories to fit their own base line of "truth" grounded in their leftist ideology. So, in the way the media practices journalism, only facts seem fleeting because they change early and often to fit their greater ideological narrative.
This is what the consumer is responding to. People have become acutely aware that the media is lying to them and that they have an agenda that they hide behind a false veneer of "journalistic integrity" and "balanced" reporting. The American public feels they are being badly served by the agenda journalism hidden behind the stoic claims of "truth" presented to them by the traditional media. And, if they are going to get opinion disguised as "reporting" from the old media, the American public would rather go to sources that they understand ahead of time comes from a particular ideological vantage point.
Honesty is what the American public wants and that is in short supply from the traditional media.
Let us deal with this claim that newspapers and journalists are the guardians of truth via the 1st Amendment, anyway. This claim is a self-serving falsity that really has only gained cachet since the 1960s when journalists stopped wanting to be writers and started imagining that their job was to somehow save the world. It also coincided with the star power of TV news when reporters stopped being the faceless voices behind a mic and became the story. Instead of the news read by Walter Cronkite, we got Walter Cronkite with the news. Instead of an on the scene report by Dan Rather we got Dan Rather on the scene.
There was a day when a town would sport several newspapers that were admittedly lined up behind a Party or even a specific candidate — it was plain to see and everyone knew it. In the early Republic, for instance, candidates actually openly printed their own newspapers to support their candidacy. If you wanted Henry Clay of Kentucky for president, for instance, you read his newspaper. If you wanted the argument of your own party affiliation, you could find a newspaper in your own town that presented that opinion to you. But, then came the idealism of the 1960s when journalism suddenly imagined that it was above such partisanship, when journalists began to imagine they were the truth personified. This shift in self perception is what resulted in the demise of the old media.
Vesely is a perfect example of those who imagine he is the arbiter of truth, fooling himself that he has been able to subdue his partisanship and replaced it with a "professional" approach to the news. He feels that there are special "obligations of journalism" making his work above the mere rumor mongering of the Internet and the great unwashed that people it. In this he is not much different from many of his contemporaries in the field. They all imagine they have shed their own partisanship, yet only they think that this is true. Everyone else sees their partisanship on display fairly clearly. Their self-perception is more like self-deception.
Vesely ends his piece with the further claim that, along with being truth itself, his fellows are also somehow the personification of the "democratic state." That without his brand of journalism, there can be no democracy. This is a claim we hear often from the media and it has a small ring of truth to it. But the truth is not exactly as Vesely and his comrades want to imagine it.
Vesely is right on when he says, "Without democracy — which means not just freedom but the robust life in a democratic state — the free press cannot survive, no matter how rich it gets." A free press was one of the most important aspects of our system passed on to us by the brilliance of our founders. It can neither survive without democracy, nor does democracy survive without the free press. They work hand in hand, neither a dispensable facet of the other.
But, here is the step too far that journalists today make. In Vesely's piece it is an admiring quote from "Today's Word on Journalism" that serves to illustrate the error that journalists make.
"While the newspaper is expendable, the tradition it represents and the information it supplies are not. The evolution from Gutenberg to Gates may be irreversible, but as new media replace the old ones there's no official passing of the torch of responsibility, no automatic transfer of the sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors. In fact, the handoff, such as it is, has been fumbled very badly. As newspapers are eviscerated, marginalized and abandoned, they leave a vacuum that nothing and no one is prepared to fill — a crisis on its way to becoming a tragedy. When railroads and riverboats began to go the way of the passenger pigeon, no one was harmed except the work force and a few big investors who had failed to diversify. If professional journalism vanishes along with the newspapers, this thing we call a constitutional democracy becomes a banana republic."
Vesely's quote is a perfect example of the arrogance inherent in the mindset of the creature who imagines himself a "professional journalist." This quote assumes the perfection and incorruptibility of the right thinking press. It assumes the general "rightness" of the denizens of the modern media culture and that assumption is neither a necessary part of that healthy democratic state, nor does it even exist. There is no "torch of responsibility" for the old media to pass on. A free press does not require "truth," nor is truth the sole jurisdiction of journalists. Nor is "the press" the guardian of the Constitution. In fact, "truth" is a life long search not one that can be supplied by a homogenized press corps all of whom subscribe to the same ideological precepts. The Constitution is ill served by a press that has no diversity in thought.
Even in his day, Thomas Jefferson was considered a Renaissance man. His search for truth was not one of mere years but one of a life time of study. His ideas changed over time as he grew in his understanding of life. Take his thoughts on religion, for instance. Many mistakenly call him a deist today, but one cannot reconcile the harsh things the younger Jefferson said about religion when compared with the warmer feelings he had about the subject as an aged statesman unless one takes into account his changing understanding with age. The older Jefferson said things about religion that would have shocked, maybe even disgusted the younger. Also consider that Ben Franklin once said that we had a Republic if we could keep it. By that he meant to relay to us all that it is the responsibility of each and every citizen to inform himself on what is going on about him so that he might become an informed citizen able to participate fully in the Republican process. So, one simply cannot read a single paper and get "the truth." One must stay informed and take in as many sources of information as possible, then makes one's own mind up and act accordingly but that is impossible when "the press" all offer the same ideologically tinged "news." Sadly, there is little diversity in opinion for the most part in modern journalism. The number of conservative papers, for instance, is small compared to the nearly universally left leaning filed of journalism.
Now let me make a prescription for the newspaper industry. If papers want to regain some modicum of their circulation, perhaps they might jettison this absurd claim that they are "balanced" and jump feet first back into the world of raucous opinion and staunch, open and honest advocacy. Bring back the sort of opinion that once existed in the media that has made the Internet the place to be today. If you want to be liberal, be honest in that role. If you want to increase circulation, serve conservatives who are leaving you in droves for talk radio and the Internet.
Above all, your "journalists" out there, come clean. If you want to be a leftist, admit it openly. You aren't really fooling anyone that you aren't a leftist, anyway and this subterfuge is the single biggest reason why you are losing the battle for the public's attention.
After all, no body likes a liar.
Warner Todd Huston is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.