Dennis Campbell
October 7, 2003
The sorry state of American journalism
By Dennis Campbell

What is the difference between a political reporter for the New York Times and a catfish? One is a bottom-dwelling garbage-eater. The other is a fish.

Okay, this is an old lawyer joke, admittedly harsh and even unfair. But while I once was pleased to bear the title "journalist," I cannot truthfully say that would be the case now. Surely, journalists can be held to a standard higher than we see today.

This is not meant to portray all as unprincipled, but what passes for journalism far too often is little more than propagandizing. Doubtless there are ethical journalists who diligently follow the tenants of a profession once possessing a greater degree of honor, but far too many do otherwise.

To be sure, American journalism has a sordid history, but between the sensationalist "yellow journalism" of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, and post-Watergate "advocacy journalism," those who aspired to careers in news reporting were relentlessly taught a concept of singular importance: News stories are to be factual and as unbiased as possible, opinion is to be confined to the editorial page, and truth reigns supreme.

But today, we are assured that "objectivity" really is impossible. It is a goal we cannot attain, so why try?

The response to this can be summed up in one word: Balderdash. Just because a lofty goal is difficult to reach does not mean we do not try.

What really is behind the "no such thing as objectivity" argument is the desire to be an advocate, not a journalist, and as we have jettisoned our belief in objective truth, the word truth becomes meaningless.

The Watergate scandal of the early '70s made investigative reporting glamorous and journalism schools were inundated with candidates. Advocacy journalism, defined as "journalism in which the writer or the publication expresses a subjective view or promotes a certain cause," gained ascendancy.

This is opinion disguised as news. One does not just report, one interprets, and is selective in what is reported and what is not in an effort to persuade fine as long as it is clear that what is being presented is subjective (Mother Jones magazine on the left and the National Review on the right, as examples) but unacceptable when it masquerades as hard news. The factually untrue always is unacceptable.

Of course, persuasion is altogether legitimate, but it once was the province of editorialists and columnists, whose material was limited to the editorial pages, and was clearly understood to be opinion. Now, an often-told joke is that the most interesting editorials in the New York Times are found in its news stories. The joke is clever, but not funny.

A good example of this ethical malaise is partial birth abortion. It was not so long ago that more than two-thirds of Americans had no idea what it was because the mainline media did not tell them. It was only after unrelenting pressure, and reporting by secondary media, that we learned what is involved in this ghastly procedure.

For years, we were told that partial birth abortion happened only infrequently a lie. We were told it was done only to save the life of the mother a lie. We were not told that the American Medical Association said this act of barbarism is never medically justified for any reason. The issue was reported incompletely and dishonestly.

This is modern journalism.

Another example is the reporting on Iraq. One would be hard-pressed to believe anything of value is being achieved there by reading the major newspapers or watching network news, but many now there, and many who visit Iraq without the agenda of Time Magazine, say differently. They talk of great progress in rebuilding that country and of a people grateful to America.

John Burns, who wrote of the war for the New York Times, has a piece in the book Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, an Oral History, by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson, in which he is critical of the war's reportage. He said, "Editors of great newspapers, and small newspapers, and editors of great television networks should exact from their correspondents the obligation of telling the truth...."

Is this not astounding? That we must be reminded that telling the truth is a vital function of journalism?

Give me the school of journalism which instilled in us the noble idea that truth is paramount and that it is possible to separate facts from opinions, and that each has its proper place.

© Dennis Campbell

 

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