Journalism dies in newsroom cultures where ‘fairness is overrated’
Establishment news outlets seem determined to wreck their own profession. Self-inflicted journalistic disasters surface these days with an unnecessary regularity. Just in recent weeks, blunders have included a “60 Minutes” hatchet job on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and the revelation that Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick did not die of a beating with a fire extinguisher, as had been widely reported in January. Major news outlets falsely reported recently that Trump ally Rudy Giuliani was told he was being targeted during the campaign as a tool for Russian disinformation. Then there is the un-nuanced reporting of any state election reform law as a de facto return to the Jim Crow era.
These aren’t mistakes in the normal sense of cub reporters not knowing any better. These failures reflect a culture that has infected too many newsrooms around the country. Reckless and sloppy reporting, I fear, represents an insidious manipulation designed to taint the news sphere for selfish and activist ends. News consuming Americans rightly wonder how the journalism industry continues to lose its way, apparently ignoring its constitutionally-endorsed charge to provide the information needs of a democracy.
A window into the mindset of today’s news industry came recently from NBC news anchor, Lester Holt, a well-regarded journalist who has forged a lengthy, high profile career. He was recognized with a lifetime achievement award in journalism from Washington State University, alma mater of the legendary reporter, Edward R. Murrow. Holt’s remarks in accepting the award included the phrase, “I think it’s become clear that fairness is over-rated.”
Knowing that statement would be a lightning rod, Holt tried to clarify: “The idea that we should always give two sides equal weight and merit does not reflect the world we find ourselves in. That the sun sets in the west is a fact. Any contrary view does not deserve our time and attention.” He added that journalists should deny “platforms for misinformation” and not allow “anyone to come say whatever they want.”
Mr. Holt, please meet Mr. Straw Man.
Nobody with a smidgen of common sense expects journalists to give life to misinformation or give platforms to flakes and kooks. Responsible journalists have never engaged in such a practice. Holt is using this fake reasoning to justify a nonsensical approach to reporting that assumes establishment media have a corner on wisdom.
Like many in the news industry today, Holt is dismissing “bothsiderism,” the long-established notion that news stories deserve more than one perspective. Journalists now can smugly justify narrative reporting with the oversimplified rationale that they are just being “fair to truth,” as Holt says. Aside from the thought that journalists don’t necessarily know the truth themselves, “onesiderism” suggests the sanctimonious media doubt the public’s ability to reason and sort out the truth on its own. In too many media circles today, alternative views that don’t fit the pre-established narratives are just dismissed as kooky and not deserving of consideration.
The sense that fairness is over-rated permeates the highest levels of the news industry. Reporters couldn’t execute the negligent journalism inherent in one-sided stories without the endorsement of news executives who set the standards and hire the newsroom personnel. Orchestrating the nation’s news discourse rather than fairly presenting multiple sides of complex issues demeans news consuming citizens whom the journalism industry should be serving.
Unlike their supposed surrogates in the news profession, regular Americans don’t believe fairness is over-rated. News consumers throw up their hands today, annoyed and disappointed by journalists who lack the commitment to present balanced news. A Rasmussen Reports study last month found just a third of American voters trust the political news they receive.
Jim Lehrer was a respected journalist who anchored the PBS “NewsHour” for many years. He authored his version of the “Rules of Journalism.” Among many important points, Lehrer wrote, “Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story,” and “Acknowledge that objectivity may be impossible but fairness never is.” Lehrer practiced journalism in a different era, but his standards served him and his journalism colleagues well.
Another broadcast reporter who had the public’s confidence was CBS legend Walter Cronkite. He was asked in an interview after he retired whether it was difficult to be fair and objective in anchoring the news. Cronkite replied it wasn’t difficult if the reporter was willing to recognize his own biases and commit to putting those biases aside in order to provide a fair report.
Today’s reporters would be wise to reflect on the insights of Lehrer and Cronkite and think carefully about what fairness is, how to achieve it, and why confidence in journalism won’t come back until the public sees it.
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.
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