Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
When news media changed its definition of objectivity, they opened the door to ignorance & Trumpism.
Once upon a time, the news media defined objectivity as presenting the facts, and just the facts, usually substantiated by at least two reliable sources. Then the right-wing, led by its own sometimes vibrant sometimes moribund cadre of media, hammered mainstream media that its side wasn’t getting a fair hearing.
According to Nicole Hemer’s Messengers of the Right, which covers the development of the right wing media from the end of World War II until the ascent of Rush Limbaugh and his various imitators, the right wing began assaulting the idea that the mainstream news media was objective from the early days of William Buckley’s National Review and Regenery Press, which published right wing screeds about communism and the evils of labor unions and government regulation, usually financed by their trust fund authors or bulk purchases by corporations run by right wingers. But the real assault on objectivity began in the 1970’s, about the time that the right wing added cultural issues such as abortion to its agenda. In place of objectivity in coverage, the right-wing proposed balance—presenting all sides of the issue.
The right wing never admitted it, nor did anyone notice at the time, but the critique of factuality as the central value of reporting correlated with the general compliant that the mass media were too “liberal,” by which they meant “left-wing” or “collectivist.” The right was subtly admitting that liberal positions were right, because the facts supported them. The news media only print facts. The facts skew liberal.
Thus the right wing pushed the notion that judging by the facts in and of itself didn’t create objectivity.
Their substitute definition of objectivity—balanced reporting—required journalists to quote the one crackpot who doesn’t believe in global warming when they had already talked to two thousand who do. Stories that should have been about how to we are addressing human-caused global warming instead rehashed whether it existed or not. This balanced approach enabled many lies to sneak into news coverage on a wide range of issues, including women’s reproductive rights, immigration, crime, science, education and health care. The biggest band leader for balance was, of course, Fox News, which did not balance its coverage but applied major pressure on other media to balance theirs. That brings us to the current situation in which most Americans have their choice of right-wing news or news that presents both the right and the left without evaluation of the truth, validity or factual basis of either side.
Remer doesn’t speculate on why the mainstream news media responded to the exhortations to replace facts with balance as the guide star of journalistic objectivity and integrity, but I’m pretty sure that two motivations drove the mainstream news media; 1) The inherent controversy in “presenting both sides” is more dramatic than a technical discussion and therefore more like entertainment; 2) Writing he said-she said stories is easier than becoming an expert and developing an in-depth discussion of an issue.
From letting people tell lie in these balanced stories to accepting their lies without question, as the media has done with trump, was a small step. Balanced reporting allowed Trump to flourish because he is a master of phrasing every argument as an “us-versus-them” battle, or, to be more specific, the great Donald versus them.
Remer’s book walks an interesting tightrope. It focuses on the right wing media’s various players, their media mix and marketing techniques, their internal squabbles, especially on whether to cut ties with the proto-alt-right John Birch Society and to support Nixon, their suspicions that the media was too left-wing, and their attempts to influence elections, political parties and mainstream media. But very little is said about the actual positions that the right-wing media held, except that they believed in the ascendancy of individual rights over what’s good for society and they disliked unions. The opposition to the civil rights movement, government regulation and all social welfare programs, including Social Security; the belief that communists had infiltrated the government; the flirtation with racist organizations; the ultra-hawkish militarism; and the belief that an elite of highly educated white men should lead society—none of these planks in the right wing media’s platform in the 1950’s and 1960’s are worthy of discussion in Remer’s telling of the story. It’s a bit like discussing the Donald Trump phenomenon without talking about the lies, lechery and lawsuits.
Copyright 2017 Marc Jampole