What’s the Media’s Role in the Post-Facts Era?
With Influence Never Lower, News Media Should Return to Impartiality
By Gregory Quinn, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc.
If the truth were publicly traded, there would be a fire-sale on the stock as we speak. Never has the value of facts been so low. Social media, with its lack of gatekeepers, has propagated the breakneck rise of fake news, misinformation and hyperbole. Our president-elect, the soon-to-be most powerful man alive, used this form masterfully during the presidential campaign, and has shown signs of continuing this pattern post-election. (To be fair, his opponent’s campaign — and every campaign in modern history — was not without statements and assertions that lacked fact-based verification.) This seeming disregard for truth would be mesmerizing if it weren’t so terrifying.
It has gotten to the point that news publishers still bound by a slavish-yet-noble devotion to truth and objectivity can no longer consider this to be an asset. It’s become a liability. Mannered, nuanced reporting is more of an indication of obsolescence than it is a sign of professionalism — dozens of scholarly articles on the advancements in neo-natal care among women’s health organizations go soundly ignored while patently false videos of baby-part auctions spread over the internet like California wildfires.
What then, given this new reality, is the role of the modern media? How does the press, an industry built on a foundation of fact and specificity, survive in a world in which those things are becoming less important?
One thing the mainstream press could try is to actually start caring about the truth again. The best thing that could happen to modern media is for it to self-enforce a moratorium on subjective journalism.
If we want to find a way to make the truth matter again, we in the media need to convince the public that we are objective again. Trump’s supporters believed, and still do, that statements coming from the president-elect and his staff are true because the only media working to challenge those statements are publications that conservatives have long-since written-off as biased, self-interested, and elitist. In a similar manner, Clinton supporters did not give credence to challenges to Clinton campaign statements when they came from media channels liberals have written off as partisan, prejudiced and tactless. And the worst part of all this: Neither side is totally wrong.
Certainly editorial pages have an important and vital role. It’s just that, at some point, the distinction between the editorial pages and the news sections became absurdly opaque. (This is particularly true on cable news, where objective journalism was sent packing years ago. Though that hardly needs to be mentioned). The media, in its ideal form, stands in direct opposition to this wave of unsubstantiated statements now passing as news. The press had been installed in our democracy as the great equalizer, a watchdog, the voice of the proletariat against those who would keep them down. But over time, the press drifted away from this goal, and along the way, its writers garnered a reputation for speaking only for elitists; special interests; and the multi-national, massive media conglomerates signing their checks. To whatever extent that was actually true became essentially immaterial; the public by and large believed this to be true, and that was all that mattered.
The rise of subjectivity and obvious political leanings in our news media has wholly polarized readership. Every major newspaper has essentially half the country ready to hate whatever it publishes — no matter how truthful.
The press must now work to shake its reputation of political biases — even if it’s a reputation not totally accurate — acknowledge these biases, and work to re-earn the public trust. Doing so may be the only way to mend the myriad discords in our country.