Two things happened this month that have me thinking more deeply about the state of journalistic integrity.
The first event surrounded what I will refer to as Chelsea Gate. Chelsea Manning was spotted at an alt right event being thrown by Mike Cernovich, a notorious right wing nut job known for his tweets claiming date rape doesn’t exist. He also thinks Weev, the webmaster for The Daily Stormer, would make a good Secretary of Technology, whatever that is.
She was instantly attacked by two journalists on Twitter who were present at the event. They accused Manning of for being friends with them, ergo an alt right apologist, sans further discussion or confirmation. Yet Manning later claimed she was crashing the event and gathering intel. We saw photos of her inside the event and outside the event with protestors- so the truth was not entirely clear. Now we can have a debate on Chelsea’s frame of mind, whether or not she was actually gathering intel, or is friends with members of this awful group- but that’s tangential to the topic I want to discuss. What I want to discuss is the actions taken by the Buzz Feed reporters who initially “broke” the story.
But before I do that, allow me to frame a question. You are a journalist attending the Alt Right party of the year. You see Chelsea Manning walk into the room. What is your first instinct? Is it to walk up to Manning and ask her why she is there or whether she is a guest? Or is it to direct message an Alt Lite pundit on Twitter known for her grifting and flamboyant dis-ingenuousness- To ask her what to tweet? If you are a respected journalist your choice should be the first. Yet it is the second that occurred. But that’s not the worst of it. We saw several other reputable journalists defending these irresponsible actions in ways that I could not have imagined. The cries rang out: “It’s up to Chelsea to explain why she was there” Never mind that the Buzz feed reporter could have asked her that question yet chose not too. “News is a sausage and you are seeing it being made in real time on Twitter” No, just no. News isn’t a sausage being filled with speculation and biased assumption in real time. And the vapid defenses kept coming, so on and so forth. The whole episode prompted me one to wonder- Is there a journalist’s version of the thin blue line?
The second event was Dan Rather joining The Young Turks. Rather is an old school journalist known for his commitment to finding truth. Indeed, he used to end his broadcasts with one word: Courage. It was refreshing to watch his first episode for this reason. He made clear that he was there to present the audience with the unvarnished facts and multiple perspectives. “I may sometimes tell you what I think, not what to think. I seek not to persuade you, but to inform you.” Suffice it to say, Dan Rather would have chosen the second.
So how did we get to this place? A place in which Newsertainment has become so widely accepted that a shared sense of truth seems archaic. A place in which many people complaining about fake news are engaging in fake news themselves. A place in which important stories are ignored by both reporters and news executives because its deemed boring and unworthy of making a buck.
We can place some of the blame at the feet of Reagan’s FCC who ended the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to air all sides of an issue with public importance, in 1987. He additionally vetoed legislation that would have turned the 38 year old doctrine into law. Although this pertained mainly to broadcasting under the FCC, I do think there has been an attitudinal ripple effect into print media as well.
We can place additional blame on the deregulation that has allowed media monopolies to flourish. In 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act into law allowing for media cross-ownership. In June of 2003, the FCC revised its limits for broadcast ownership in an attempt to address the impeding media monopolies ( Media Ownership Rule Changes) but multiple parties balked and appealed the decision. In response, the bought congress voted to approve a spending bill that included a provision to block the FCC decision. The major networks could now be allowed to own up to 45% of viewers.
By 2004, Gannet and Knight Ridder owned slightly more than 300 newspapers between them. By 2014, seven investment firms owned twice as many dailies as in 2004. The largest of these, Gatehouse/New Media recently acquired by tech firm Softbank Japan, currently owns 564 community print publications, 489 websites, 476 mobile sites and 130 dailies. They are additionally mid acquisitions on others. I could devote a whole column to this, but you get the picture.
A good step toward a remedy would be to break up the monopolies in media. Even though it may appear that media has been expanding due to cable and the internet- the reality is that there has been a massive consolidation. Indeed, in November 2017, the FCC removed one of the last remaining blocks. The rule, first instated in 1975, prevented companies from owning a radio or TV station and a newspaper in the same market. This will indeed lead to more monopolies and a narrower echo chamber with fewer checks and balances. As of 2017, there are 5 major media giants gobbling up more and more of the local markets. And the damage from killing net neutrality has yet to be wrought, but suffice it to say, it will not encourage more growth in the independent market or competition.
So having fewer media companies has created a bit of an echo chamber in which priorities have shifted. One national company can now blanket the “local” news in 100 cities with the same broadcast. Same goes for radio and print publication. And the incentive to do so is lower over head and higher profit margins. Newspapers have cut staffing devoting less time to investigative journalism. They instead opt for more op-eds that please their shareholders and push their chosen political candidates.
At the same time we have witnessed an increase in social media and all that goes with it. Popularity on Twitter and Facebook, whether for better or worse, have become part of the journalists job. These outlets are often used to share important information that would otherwise not be seen- a reason to be thankful for them. But they have also born witness to the adage “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has put its boots on” far too often. Not to mention the rabid effects of troll mobs.
So this further leads me to question whether these some of these self described journalists are actually journalists. I think it can be argued that they are media barons focused on increasing profits or notoriety. The conventional wisdom has become: if promoting gossip and unsubstantiated fact increases your views and bottom line, then its okay to shun your civic obligation. Yet, in my opinion, this has lead as to a dangerous point and I fear there is no appetite to reverse it.
Although we can do nothing to prevent bad journalistic hot takes on Twitter, we can and should address the environment that has allowed these transgressions to flourish as they can and do cause harm. The news has an obligation to the public interest and that obligation needs to be taken more seriously. Newspapers and journalists enjoy special Constitutional protections- as they should. In exchange they enjoy an esteemed position in our society, or at least they once did. So it is now up to them to take that responsibility and the notion of journalistic integrity more seriously.