The nation suffers today from information chaos characterized by competing political narratives, fake news and social media mayhem. Citizens struggle to make sense of confusing messages entering the public sphere from propagandists, provocateurs, corporatists, political activists and other self-serving sources.
America’s constitutional framers created a First Amendment that allowed for a free press. The free press, presumably, would then provide a wide range of information, thus helping citizens sort out the superficial, emotional and irrational from the reasonable. The “news” was to be the conversation of democracy. The press was to serve as surrogate for the public, holding the powerful accountable. The press was expected to manage information chaos.
Now, in the 21st Century, the role and effectiveness of the American press must be scrutinized to assess whether it can truly measure up to its constitutional promise. The news media may now be more of a hindrance than a help to national understanding.
The cringeworthy performance of the news media in recent weeks rightly troubles sensible Americans. The journalists’ dreadful performance in the Democratic presidential candidate debates demonstrated how a news network would dumb down and exploit an exercise in democracy for crass promotional purposes. NBC’s panel of reporters themselves became part of the debate, making their stances known and hogging time from the real candidates. The use of “raise your hand” questions made the event look like a second grade classroom.
Then there is CNN’s lead White House correspondent, Jim AcostaJames (Jim) AcostaDemocrats brace for battle on Biden's .5 trillion spending plan Clyburn: 'You may not need .5 trillion to do what the president wants done' Joe Rogan rips CNN over coverage of ivermectin regimen MORE, who has basically given up reporting about the president to instead self-promote and grandstand. Acosta has abandoned any sense of objectivity, which would be fine enough if CNN just made him a commentator instead of a reporter. So, too, Fox News’s Shepard Smith recently used his news anchor chair as a platform for an emotional and unnuanced lecture about immigration policy. The blending of opinion into reporting troubles news consumers who fear being told what to think instead of what to think about.
The overall news agenda is no longer designed to enlighten the nation on matters of substance as to sensationalize and generate emotional hype. “News” is now defined as what the shrillest of political agitators has to say or which nonsensical pop culture fad is going viral on social media. There is no other way to explain the oversized place in the news agenda of Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezFeehery: The confidence game Democrats face full legislative plate and rising tensions McCarthy on Dems' spending bill: 'The amount of money we spent to win World War II' MORE, both from left- and right-leaning news outlets. While deserving her say, she has no more right to a place in the day’s news than the 97 other new members of Congress.
These are just a few anecdotes of flimsy journalism, of course, but as researchers often note, the plural of anecdote is data. News consuming citizens have been compiling their own anecdotes and are drawing their conclusions. That’s why trust in the media has declined, why cable news ratings are dipping, why newspapers are closing, and consequently, why news organizations are laying off reporters. Interestingly, as news organizations have abandoned principles of solid journalism in a chase for ratings and clicks, serious news consumers have looked elsewhere for news or simply become disinterested bystanders. Neither option is a good development for the conversation of democracy.
First Amendment framer James Madison expected the press to play the key role in informing the electorate, saying, “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.” Indeed, the free press has been known throughout American history as the informal “Fourth Estate” of the nation. Now, however, news reality in the nation is under constant threat by warped news values, hyped agendas, and a general news fantasy that constantly seeks the dramatic. The result is a nation that may be uninformed as to the real challenges it faces. This leaves democracy disabled and its citizens less free.
Producing measured and objective journalism is difficult, but it shouldn’t be impossible. The standards of fair reporting emerged in American journalism in the 20th Century and were planted in ethics codes of professional associations such as the Society of Professional Journalists.
The objectivity standard eroded in the late 20th Century as a core of academics contended that the standard stifled journalists. Stanford’s Theodore Glasser wrote, “Objective reporting has stripped reporters of their creativity and imagination.” That, of course, was the point of objectivity. The public seemed to prefer that standard to today’s ill-defined journalistic, “creative” crusaderism. The news industry might consider how a return to principles of objectivity could reverse the public’s growing disenchantment with its supposed surrogates.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.