The public’s trust of mainstream media is at historic lows. And still dropping, according to the latest Gallup polls. It is no wonder, in view of media malpractice during the 2016 presidential election.
The so-called “news networks” such as CNN and Fox no longer even give lip service to slogans such as “fair and balanced.” They have fanned the flames of partisanship and demonized “the other side” with such volume and intensity that there is little chance that people might actually look for “the common good.”
With their mind-numbing 24/7 news, shouting contests, hateful language and extreme partisanship, the news networks are an embarrassment to those of us who believe in humble and unbiased journalism.
I tried to watch this summer’s political conventions on CNN and Fox.
In both cases, I was repulsed by their commentators, who kept interrupting the convention speeches to tell me what I should think about what was being said. Like most Americans, I don’t need network puppets to tell me what to think. I ended up watching both conventions on C-Span, thankful to have escaped the media manipulation.
I worry that too many of our citizens actually prefer shouted sound bites that reinforce their prejudices. Real solutions and political compromise are difficult to tweet or text. Hearing views that challenge our thinking can be uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s why CNN and Fox are so shallow and so popular.
So many Americans are addicted to entertainment.
Media outlets — most owned by huge corporations — are addicted to reach and ratings. It’s natural, then, that media outlets have become more concerned with entertaining people than informing and that the line between journalists and entertainers have been blurred. Straight news takes a backseat to entertainment as television journalists turn themselves into clowns to attract a following.
The nation’s major print journalists aren’t doing much better.
Almost every election story makes it sound like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the only two candidates. Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein are almost never mentioned. Many Americans have no idea who they are, and will be surprised to find their names on the ballot.
Journalists can defend this oversight by citing the low name recognition of Johnson and Stein. But there is a “chicken or egg” factor at work here: what comes first — media coverage or name recognition? The media seldom mention the third and fourth party candidates because they aren’t polling above 10 percent; they aren’t polling above 10 percent because the media seldom mentions them.
Journalists shouldn’t promote any particular candidate over the others, but that’s precisely what many of them are doing with their “gotcha” coverage and by virtually ignoring the “minor party” candidates.
This is an exceptional year, with both Democrats and Republicans having nominated candidates who are viewed unfavorably by a solid majority of Americans. This year, more than ever, voters might welcome knowing that there are other choices.
But too many lazy journalists are blindly following the lockstep lead of other journalists in covering the Clinton/Trump horserace. Heck, it’s easy to write about Trump’s latest verbal eruptions and Clinton’s spin gyrations. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the familiar indictment of the media — and the leading two candidates are gushing from their self-inflicted wounds.
So-called fact-checking — which has become really popular this year — is yet another example of media arrogance.
As columnist James Taranto puts it, “Fact checking doesn’t pretend to be straight news exactly, but something more authoritative. The conceit of the fact checker is that he has some sort of heightened level of objectivity qualifying him to render verdicts in matters of public controversy.”
Is it any wonder that public distrust of the media is so high — and still rising?
I’m embarrassed by what is happening to media on the national level, but proud that our little company continues to view unbiased non-judgmental journalism as a sacred obligation to our readers. We’re in this to engage readers in their democratic republic, not to manipulate the news to promote partisanship.
Editor’s note: Mr. Smyth is INI’s board chair, former CEO, and author of “Newsroom Guidelines for Independent Newspapers”