Can We Trust the News? And What is News, Anyway?

A recent Mitch Henck column regarding so-called “a la carte media” really hit a nerve. To compare Rush Limbaugh to Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and AP makes a mockery of journalism. Partisan talk radio doesn’t equal news coverage any more than Fox News equals actual news.

“The good news is nothing is wrong with a la carte media,” argues Henck. I wish. Everything is wrong with partisan media. Political talkers are fast and loose with the facts. Sometimes it appears that they actually make them up, or they just keep saying the same thing over and over again. How many times can Fox News scream Benghazi via its hosts or flashing graphics? Enough times to create many opinions that are far from informed.

Anybody interested in actual journalism should read the Loudest Voice in the Room, by journalist Gabriel Sherman. His well-researched, even account of Roger Ailes convincingly argues that his Fox News empire offers pure propaganda and little resembling journalism. Ailes has an ideological product to sell and millions of like-minded viewers are all too ready to buy. Nothing to worry about, Mitch? Nothing to worry about if you don’t care about facts.

Henck’s main premise, though, is on target. Most of us may well be guilty of what academics call confirmation bias. We watch and listen to people who largely confirm our own views. That’s not good because we shut ourselves off from those who may teach us something not readily in our experience. What’s worse, though, is to declare all mainstream journalism biased and take cover under partisan sources of information, often deeply flawed and or misleading, and claim that is the “other side.” No. A fact is not liberal or conservative. It’s just reality.

Do reporters and news outlets have a political slant? Sure. One of my UW-Madison journalism professors once told our class that, “total objectivity is death.” We are all shaped by our life experience and we all have opinions. This, however, doesn’t mean real journalists go into work with a political agenda. Good reporters work hard to get the facts and present them fairly. For almost a decade, I filed for what Henck considers “liberal” NPR. I can assure you that the editors at NPR are as thorough and professional as any reader or listener would hope. I could never get away with just filing some political diatribe because that happened to be my point of view. To put NPR on the same scale as Fox is less than credible. They are completely different animals. One is a journalism shop; the other is not.

It’s also a mistake to assert that the “a la carte media” simply provide an alternative view. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—two great pillars of journalistic excellence—provide a different focus on the content but they actually report news! They come at it from different vantage points but real journalism strives for fairness, thoroughness and accuracy.

Partisan talkers—left and right—, as well as ideological websites and organizations, primarily fan the flames of partisan rancor. They don’t help us learn and allow us to make up our minds based on the facts. With all of the heat “a la carte media” generate, the main thing lost is enlightenment.

So yes, there is a monumental difference between speaking loudly into a microphone and reporting the news.


Posted on April 19, 2015 .