The media has been bought and paid for by the political establishment!
Newspapers should stick to reporting facts!
Journalism is dead!
All of the above exclamations (and many more of its ilk) have been the refrain of one of the most popular conspiracy theories of this year’s campaign cycle: that the ‘mass media’ (whatever that may be; the definition is unclear) is under the thumb of shadowy, money-grubbing capitalists, or worse, politicians.
As someone who does this for a living, it’s profoundly saddening to see just how widespread this view has become, and how much popularity it’s gained on both the left and the right. Among the left, it’s most often combined with accusations of “selling out for pageviews” or “falling prey to the political establishment”; among the right, you can add snide remarks of “liberal bubbles” to the mix. And of course, don’t forget your side of “lying mass media”.
Oh, wait, sorry, it should be in all caps – the LYING MEDIA!
Either way, it’s disheartening to see an entire industry painted with a brush so broad, it could paint lines on the highway.
To start with the conclusion: no.
No, we are not getting under-the-table cheques from the liberal establishment. (Although my bank account wouldn’t mind that.)
No, we have not consciously given one candidate slack while bagging on the other. (I’ve intentionally left this vague, because we’ve been charged with this crime from both sides.)
No, journalists have not formed some kind of underground cabal to secretly control the flow of information. (You must have it confused with our Thursday drinking groups.)
And finally, no, we’re not liars. One of my friends actually said this the other day (not to my face, and she didn’t know what my job was, but that doesn’t mitigate the hurt). If we say that Clinton’s leaked emails are a bullshit scandal, it’s because we earnestly believe that to be true. If we say that Trump mocked a disabled man at a rally, it’s because we have proof of it. And if we showed Clinton winning all the polls the night before the elections, it’s because we received data that we trust showing it to be so. (This will be the most politically charged this blog post will be.)
Here’s what we are:
We’re underpaid, overworked people passionate about this industry who, among bigger and nastier cutbacks (because people now expect their news to be free, which is a completely different discussion entirely), are struggling to maintain the level of quality we know this country deserves;
We are always, always on deadlines, writing stories off lack of sleep and constant stress and (often) limited information;
We try to report the full picture as often as we can, but when the situation is unbalanced in the first place, we’re not going to artificially balance it (see: climate change denial);
We scoff at people haranguing us to “report just the facts!!” because journalism has never been about reporting just the facts. If we did, news would be very, very boring to read. Also, literally impossible, as news is written by people with their own points of view;
We also scoff at people who moan, “journalism isn’t what it used to be”. Um, hello? Cuba? William Hearst? Tammany Hall? 1920s yellow journalism? The best journalists are also damn good historians;
And most importantly of all, we don’t exist to confirm your bias. It’s a popular refrain in this industry: if everyone is accusing you of being biased toward the other, then you must be doing something right. I’ve read far too many Facebook comments along the lines of: “Such dishonest media! I get my news from XXXX instead!” on any article that goes against their perceived view of the world. Well, guess what? Your outlet of choice isn’t much better, and is usually – based on my experience – utter fabrications. (Because the kinds of people who usually say those things aren’t the most well-informed citizens to begin with.)
But all of this smoke and mirrors – all of the minute discussions about individual points of media complaints – covers a bigger problem: American distrust of media is based on little but their own prejudices, encouraged by Facebook “news” that is only far too happy to stoke the flames of misinformed dissent.
So stop reading those Facebook meme pages and blogs with incendiary headlines, because Obama isn’t coming for your guns and Trump isn’t Hitler. Subscribe to a print newspaper. Several, if you can, across the spectrum. Read and criticize, by all means, but don’t let your hurt feelings get in the way of a healthy media environment – because we need it more than ever these days.