Truth and con­se­quences

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Kath­leen Parker

Of all the losers in this sea­son of dis­con­tent, the main­stream media top the list. I don’t say this lightly and sin­cerely fear that loss of faith in jour­nal­ism ul­ti­mately will cause more harm to the na­tion than any out­side en­emy could hope to.

Only 18 per­cent of Amer­i­cans trust na­tional news and just 22 per­cent trust lo­cal news, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. That said, three-fourths of Amer­i­cans think news or­ga­ni­za­tions keep po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in line, though about the same per­cent­age think the news media are bi­ased.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Repub­li­cans more than Democrats think this way. It hasn’t helped that Repub­li­can politi­cos and conservative ca­ble and ra­dio out­lets have con­vinced their con­stituents that the media are the en­emy. It seems we’ve for­got­ten that the pur­pose of a news­pa­per, as Chicago Evening Post jour­nal­ist and hu­morist Fin­ley Peter Dunne put it in an 1893 col­umn, is to com­fort the af­flicted and af­flict the com­fort­able.

Could there be a bet­ter rea­son to give Don­ald J. Trump a rough ride?

Nev­er­the­less, dis­trust of le­git­i­mate jour­nal­ism is no jok­ing mat­ter. What hap­pens to democ­racy when an un­in­formed, mis­in­formed, or dis-in­formed pop­u­lace tries to make sound de­ci­sions? The sim­ple and ter­ri­ble answer is, democ­racy fails.

We’ve reached this crit­i­cal junc­ture thanks largely to the digital rev­o­lu­tion. Un­til rel­a­tively re­cently, most peo­ple re­lied on a limited num­ber of trusted news sources, which pro­vided a ba­sis for what we re­ferred to as “com­mon knowl­edge.” The coun­try more or less also shared a set of com­mon val­ues.

To­day, of course, we have thou­sands of news sources — or mil­lions if you count so­cial media. Every­one can pick his or her own out­let for con­sump­tion as well as a venue for in­ven­tion. Per­sonal jour­nal­ists — that is, any­one with a smart­phone to pho­to­graph or video in real time — have cre­ated vir­tual news­rooms of one that can com­mu­ni­cate with count­less oth­ers through tweets, retweets and cre­ated buzz on fact or fic­tion.

If you’re sud­denly put in mind of in­sects, you’re not far off. Deafened by the dizzy­ing din, it’s hard to hear the an­gels sing.

To those who com­plain that Trump re­ceived more neg­a­tive cov­er­age than Hil­lary Clin­ton did, I would merely point out that cor­rectly quot­ing the man was in­her­ently neg­a­tive. He said a lot of aw­ful stuff and of­fered lit­tle of sub­stance to off­set the head­lines. More­over, the media have cov­ered ev­ery fol­li­cle of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s scalp for 25 to 30 years. Her flaws and fail­ures are well known to any­one who’s been half-awake, while Trump was es­sen­tially new on the po­lit­i­cal stage.

Trump’s own crit­i­cism of the press was as trumped up as many of his other cam­paign slo­gans, cre­ated to rile the crowd and de­flect at­ten­tion from, among other things, the fact that his ma­nip­u­la­tion of the media was the en­gine that pro­pelled him to the top of the heap. But he knew that media bash­ing was pop­u­lar among his base and gave them what they wanted.

Also con­tribut­ing to the grow­ing dis­trust is the per­ceived blur­ring of news and opin­ion, which can be a le­git­i­mate beef. Ad­vo­cacy jour­nal­ism, in this opin­ion writer’s view, be­longs on the edi­to­rial and op-ed pages, though many news or­ga­ni­za­tions sub­scribe to the no­tion that ad­vanc­ing a so­cial cause or, per­haps, de­rail­ing an un­fit can­di­date, jus­ti­fies ag­gres­sive, Page 1 cov­er­age. Ob­jec­tiv­ity be damned.

Thus, one shouldn’t won­der why so many have lost faith. It is worth not­ing, how­ever, that when a main­stream re­porter or ed­i­tor is found to be de­lib­er­ately dis­hon­est, he or she is quickly dis­patched to the outer dark­ness. The same can’t be said of the al­ter­na­tive news world or of so­cial media. On Face­book, “fake” news creator Paul Horner re­cently mar­veled that his vi­ral, made-up sto­ries helped get Trump elected.

For­tu­nately, only 4 per­cent of Amer­i­cans trust so­cial media “a lot” as a news source, and 30 per­cent trust it “some,” ac­cord­ing to Pew. But some­times it’s hard to tell fake from true, or ad­vo­cacy from pro­pa­ganda, and therein lies per­haps the great­est chal­lenge of our time.

What’s clear is that news con­sumers must be ex­tra vig­i­lant in se­lect­ing news sources, while also be­ing self-crit­i­cal about those choices. The main­stream media need to work harder at pre­sent­ing bal­anced re­port­ing to re­build trust. And ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams aimed at teach­ing stu­dents how to eval­u­ate news, such as those cre­ated by The Lit­er­acy Project, need greater pub­lic sup­port and an ac­cel­er­ated time­line.

Words to this ef­fect from our next pres­i­dent wouldn’t hurt. Trump would see head­lines change quickly in his fa­vor, the world would re­joice, and the Trump brand would be golden for­ever. Come on, do it.

Kath­leen Parker is syn­di­cated by the Wash­ing­ton Post Writers Group.

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