In Media We Trust

There is only one private enterprise sanctioned in the Constitution. It comes in Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise … of the press.” Newspapers are given the absolute right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by government.

The press has a duty to shoulder this awesome responsibility with the utmost care and deliberation. They not only distribute opinion, but also facts–critical information–told fairly and clearly so we citizens can be the decision makers we need to be to contribute our part in sustaining the republic.

In oppressive governments, the press is not independent, but rather operated by the government, disbursing only what government wants publically seen. Quashing what the press is able to print puts citizens in jeopardy. We need look no further than the events in 1930s Germany. The lack of an adversarial press caused millions of ordinary people to either comply or turn a blind-eye while their government exterminated millions of humans simply because they were not like themselves. A strong push-back from the press may have been able to avoid the Holocaust. The Russian government has ruled its media for a hundred years. By doing so, the government has been able to direct wealth and power into the hands of only a few, keeping the masses from achieving their natural potential.

The consequences of a regulated free press are dire.

Many of you are not reading a traditional print copy of a newspaper, and that is fine. The news industry is struggling to find its place in an electronic age. I’m certain that they will eventually stabilize their commercial way. So, I’m going to concentrate on the fact that the news media are the champions of truth regardless of the format.

The Washington Post is one of our largest, most popular, most vocal, and most established publications. It is unique because it operates within our government district and reports about government doings. It was established in 1877 and has won 47 Pulitzer prizes, second only to The New York Times’s 122. They earned a whopping six Pulitzers in 2008, one less than the NYT’s record seven in 2002. It, along with the Gray Lady, are national treasures.

When newspaper reporters are mentioned, the names of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward often come to mind. These two novice reporters along with their editor, Ben Bradlee, and Post owner, Katherine Graham, got hold of a minor story in 1972 and stuck with it, digging deeper, keeping the public up to date, and ended up two years later finishing the job by exposing a corrupt president, forcing him from office. Just prior, in 1971, the Post, along with the NYT, fought for and won the right to publish the “Pentagon Papers” that were discovered to show the government was lying to us about the Vietnam War.

Both of these stories are shining examples of the media at its best. But, it is not in successes that we find proof of how devoted the press is to the American public. In their effort to get news printed, they not only work hard, but work fast. News becomes stale if left to steep. We all know that haste makes waste and media are not immune from this axiom. We can read any edition of any paper and generally around page two or three, below the fold, there is a list of corrections that needs to be made from the previous edition. Many are minor but some are doozies.

In 1980 the Post hired a young, promising reporter, Janet Cooke. She was a rising star in the company. On September 28, 1980, a story titled “Jimmy’s World” was published under Ms. Cooke’s by line. It was the story of an eight-year-old boy who, she reported, was a third-generation heroin addict. Ms. Cooke spent weeks researching and following leads about the boy she kept hearing stories about in the streets. She finally finished her work and published the moving story of the youngster, already deeply scarred with needle tracks in his arms. It was an amazing story and on April 13, 1981 Janet Cooke and The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for her efforts. Immediately, problems in the story started to surface and soon Ms. Cooke admitted she had fabricated the story. Jimmy was an urban legend.

This was an epic fail by the newspaper. As soon as possible, Ms. Cooke was fired and the Pulitzer was returned. But the real issue here is how the Post handled its embarrassment. This retraction wasn’t buried below the fold. This retraction/apology ran on the front page with over 17,000 words. This column is about 900 words. The Post’s retraction was nearly 20 times longer.

The Washington Post did not hide in the shadows or make excuses. They owned up to their mistake and promised to continue to try their best to earn the public trust. It is in failure that we can see how much we can trust our media. News gets published that isn’t accurate every day, but it is not done with malice. We can and need to trust that the press is on our side. The media may be enemies of those in power, but they are not the enemies of the people. Indeed, they are all that stand in the way of tyranny.

 

Comments

  1. Jerry Schulz says:

    In a perfact world, what you offer falls right in line with the Constitution and what our founding fathers had in mind. Where the concept went astray, however, is that the press has aligned itself to specific political agendas. Some say the mainstream media is strongly liberal (Democrat) and others say Fox News and Britebart lean conservative (Republican). The problem with today’s news and why it is not trustworthy is 3 fold….(1) some articles are just opinion, not fact, though they are not presented as opinion, (2) some stories are simply fabricated with no basis in fact, but are based on rumor or unsubstantiated communications, and (3) the biases in the media dictate what news is covered and how that news is presented. More often than not, positive news about opposing ideology is ignored while negative news about opposing ideology is glorified. And conversely, positive news about supported ideology is glorified, while negative news about supporting ideology is ignored. The media must earn our trust, before they can be trusted. In the meantime, you should get news from several outlets and from different points of view; you should not jump to any conclusions, but rather give the media ample time to make corrections to any errors and omissions; and you must learn to recognize what news is just opinion understand that opinion is just opionion….it is not fact nor news.

  2. Terry Donnelly says:

    On one hand, Jerry, you say the media can’t be trusted and then state that a citizen must read several outlets. I’m not sure how to respond to that except that the unstated point of my column is to say that we can’t let the media do our thinking for us. We are the ultimate decision makers in our lives and the media is there to help us with those decisions. I disagree that hard news sources like the Post, NYT, WSJ, and other newspapers have lost their way. I am making a distinction between the news and editorial pages. You seem to think they are blended and again, I disagree. Tons of op-eds are out there, but with careful reading, they are still distinct. It is incumbent on the readers to choose quality sources and avoid those who would participate in your threefold condemnation above. They are still there.

  3. Mike Young says:

    Terry – the latest Pew survey shows news is 3 to 1 against Trump far more then against Obama. The news has truly lost it’s way. Also, there seem to be no difference between news and editorial pages anymore. Since the shift matches your belief structure it maybe hard for you to see, but others do notice. Check out the surveys they all show the same thing. Most people don’t study the news they hear or see headlines and think they must be true.

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