Boy, we who make our living with a pen and a notepad in hand have sure dropped in the public’s esteem.
Indeed, many people consider members of the press to be among the most mustachioed, tying-upingest-of-maidens-to the-tracks sort of villains ever to skulk about the Earth. Sort of walking coyote pats with a pen and pad.
Some will say the whole lot of us are hopelessly biased, that we’re all dishonest, that we twist the truth to fit the liberal agenda.
Sweeping generalizations like those really get under the skin because they are ridiculously simplistic. They don’t comport with what actually happens on the ground.
Take a look around. The world is not monochrome, and the human beings who live on it — a category that, some may argue, includes journalists — certainly are not all alike. And whenever we lump multi-farious human beings into one hideous composite, we act in fear, ignorance and stupidity.
Having said that, there is no denying the legitimacy of much of the criticism.
Is there bias? Yes, there is. How could it be otherwise? We are human beings. All eyes that look out on the world or ever will look out on the world are embedded in particular skulls housing particular brains that direct the actions and thought processes of a person who grew up in particular circumstances in a particular part of the Earth where they were blessed or cursed with particular parents and influenced by particular events or education that profoundly affected them.
Given that reality, the best that reporters can do is recognize and control their own biases. Some do it well, some fail, and some, sadly, no longer even try. Reputable newsrooms will bounce those bozos quickly.
I have my own beefs with the press, but being the ink-stained print reporter that I am, my criticism centers mainly on today’s television news, and the ravenous, 24/7 television news cycle, which goads the on-air contingent to fill up every chink and cranny with … something. Especially if it bleeds. Or scares the hell out of people. Anything for the sake of ratings. And just like you, I hate that. But it happens.
I first realized that on a day in the mid-1990s when a minor earthquake rattled the Puget Sound region. In response, the local television news stations sent their reporters into the field, where they found just about nothing perhaps beyond a bit of masonry that had fallen from a building.
Up to that point, fine, we could all breathe a sigh of relief. Nobody was hurt.
Here’s what frosted me. More than an hour after it was blindingly obvious that this was a nothing event, that everything was cool, the powers that be in the television newsrooms in question refused to acknowledge reality. Instead, they kept their reporters out there, in an increasingly pathetic, desperate, fruitless bid to find calamity. And there was none.
That poisoned my attitude toward television news.
But the phenomenon itself was not new. Because to speak about how far the press has fallen, one must tacitly posit a golden age, free of the sort of seedy, half-pay charlatans and weasels who will do anything for money, and which, I must add, with variations infest every occupation.
A study of some old newspapers, certainly not all, should enlighten us.
Papers in the 19th and early 20th centuries commonly described people involved in some controversy of the day — in what should have been sober print — using such highly personal terms as “dastardly” and “monstrous,” even “villainous.”
The Wounded Knee Massacre was a massacre of nearly 300 Lakota people by soldiers of the United States Army on Dec. 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, following a botched attempt to disarm the Lakota camp. It was largely caused by unprincipled journalists who’d arrived at the site well before shooting broke out, and, finding not much going on, proceeded to blow up every trifle into a major incident, until public fear, panic and ignorance of what the Native American Ghost Dances were all about, brought on a real bloodbath.
Neither is disdain for the press new. General William Tecumseh Sherman publicly despised the press. He considered “the dirty newspaper scribblers who hung about camp” as “having the impetus of Satan,” indeed, as spies willing to broach military secrets. And being the irritable W.T. Sherman, he would have preferred to shoot them. But he didn’t. Perhaps because he was convinced that if he did, he said, there’d be “news from hell before breakfast.”
If any sort of golden age in American journalism existed, I would have to say it was during the Second War War and into the mid-to-later years of the 20th Century, embodied in such on-air stalwarts as Edward R. Murrow, with his coverage of the McCarthy hearings, Walter Cronkite, and in the print press, by Merriman Smith, the legendary UPI reporter who broke the news of the John F. Kennedy assassination, and whose tour-de-force in Dallas won him the Pulitzer Prize.
One of the crowning ironies in the current hate-the-mainstream-press moment is that many of the people who say they so despise it will, in the next moment, turn about and wrap their gobs around enormous firehoses of crap for their information, and inhale deeply. They have not found better, more reliable, unbiased news sources; they have found sources that agree with their opinions and biases. The gain there is nothing, and all it does is confirm a person’s own biases. And our fractured, fractious nation pays the price in sectors of the population that have worked themselves into a lather about things that are not.
It disturbs me that merely because a particular story may be at variance with what a reader wishes were the truth, that story, in his or her eyes, is ipso facto, false. And not only wrong, but pernicious, evil.
Like everyone else, I am attached to my own head. It means a lot to me — after all, it’s the only one I’ve got. But if life has taught me anything, it is that merely because I have a particular idea inside my skull, it is not automatically correct. I have been wrong, and badly so, too many times to fail to recognize that sometimes I must “check it out” against the wisdom and knowledge banked up in other heads.
Cynicism is OK, to a point. We are right to question. Because the government has lied to us many times throughout history, and sadly, some in the press have abetted the lies. But consider the long-term consequences of mistrusting everything we read or hear. That one day an air raid siren may began to blare, and Smith, who by that moment, scoffs at everything outside of his own news bubble, will stand his ground because he is “too smart to be taken in.”
The world is a big, funny place; it does things we don’t always like, things which we may wish were untrue, but are not. And there are unscrupulous people more than willing to take advantage of the gullible to further their own ends.
The best advice I can offer is to avail yourself of the knowledge we now have at our beck and call. Check the story against three to five sources. Even if — especially if — those sources lie outside of that old comfort zone.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.