Does journalism still matter to you?

Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg
Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg (Photo credit: Jeremy Franklin)

Do you care about facts?


Objective truth?

As someone who’s been working in journalism for 30 years, I get up every morning assuming — hoping! — there is still an audience interested in learning something smart and thoughtful about the world they didn’t know the day before.

I say “day” because minute-to-minute “news” is often, unless it’s about a death or natural disaster, wrong, biased, misinformed.

Being the first to report something doesn’t mean being the best.

I don’t use Twitter. When I read my “news feed” on Facebook, I don’t substitute my friends’ opinions, videos and pet photos for an understanding of the world.

But many people now do. For them this is news, traditional media be damned.

Thanks to the Internet, to blogs like this and news that reifies hardened political views, too many people now turn to an echo chamber, listening and reading only those people whose shared vision of the world and its challenges — poverty, reproductive rights, defense, education, health care — comforts, soothes and reassures them that their worldview is right!

What we’re gaining — in a feeling of connectedness and community — we’re also losing by ignoring or shutting out the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, perhaps violently. If you live in the U.S. and read the liberal New York Times, it’s worth also reading the opinion and editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to see a totally different view of the same issues.

Just because you lean wayyyyyy to the left, or right, doesn’t mean your opinion is accurate because it’s shared by those who shout your tune the loudest.

No matter how much you may disagree, if you refuse to examine and consider other viewpoints, how can you learn how other people think? With a Presidential election here in a few months, it’s certainly going to play out at the ballot box.

You can’t just cover your ears and shout lalalalalalalalalalalala and hope to have a clue what’s going out there.

I read a variety of media, and try to include British and Canadian sources as often as possible. If I were less lazy, I’d also read Spanish and French media. Nor do I assume that any journalist, or media outlet, has some exclusive claim to the truth. I know better!

When it comes to “truth”, there are many different versions.

Here’s a short video interview from the Guardian newspaper with American journalist Carl Bernstein about the issue; he was one of the two Washington Post reporters whose exhaustive, dogged investigative work on former President Richard Nixon led to his resignation.

In his view, the scourge of our era is this closed-eyes/closed-ears attitude. Our unwillingness to listen to one another in order to gain some sort of consensus.

Do you seek out views other than your own?

35 thoughts on “Does journalism still matter to you?

  1. To me it does. I have a problem with the internet involving how easy it is to literally just make things up. Fox News is a ridiculous example of this. Most of the stuff out there is so biased, and I’m a middle-ground type guy, that it’s hard to figure out what’s true and what’s pure speculation. I read magazines like Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly mostly for the journalism. I appreciate the levels of research and interviews the journalists in magazines like these conduct in order to build a story several full-pages long, when it’s so easy to find stories on the ‘net, summarize them, and post them on a “news” blog. To me, journalism is all about putting in the time to build a story that will captivate people and make them want to do something about it, not just to shock people or get a big break. I appreciate it when journalists do these things, and I will read anything when it is obvious how much work went into it.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

      One of the challenges now — from the supplier side, as it were – is that few magazines or newspapers pay freelancers well. That means we have to — as one friend recently agreed — work twice as hard for half the income. So the impulse is to do less, faster. That does not, typically, produce the kind of nuanced, heavily reported material you want, need, deserve. Expect!

      In the old days, pre-recession, the best-paid writers of journalism (aside from the Big Bucks crowd like Vanity Fair) were getting $3/wd and could write a piece of, say, 5,000 words. For $15,000 I can afford to give you a good chunk of my time and attention. It’s now very rare for me (at $1/wd, sometimes $2/wd, the “new” rates from the 1980s) for even get an assignment longer than 2,000 words — for $2,000. At NYC-area costs of living, I just can’t spend a ton of time on anything now. I try to do my very best, quickly. But I see others (look at all the self-plagarism, Lehrer, Zakaria, etc.) not being so fussy.

  2. I try to, but like you I’ve been surprised at how few people are interested in an exchange of ideas as opposed to just confirming what they already think to be right. One of the things I’ve been dismayed to discover since leaving university is how narrow some people are willing to be – it baffles me how some people can go for decades if not lifetimes without even examining their ideas at least once. And how far some are willing to go in demonizing anyone who disagrees with them.

  3. Julia

    In my opinion, the worst action is not voting. Listen, read, argue, yes, and then vote. Voter turnout is appalling. This is a democracy people!

    1. Apathy rules.

      I cannot vote here as I am not a US citizen. If I could, I’d choose Obama over Romney, not because I love Obama, but because I loathe and fear a White House with Romney in it.

  4. originaltitle

    Sadly, it goes further than even journalism. Even textbooks and educational resources can at times possess bias. For two years I swore off TV news casting, but bias still found a way to creep into my life. I did an internship with the State Government and also saw from the inside how “news” is sometimes created. All to serve a purpose and that purpose is not objectively fact-driven. I’m glad that you look to other sources and don’t buy into the “first is best” attitude of the general media. I enjoy reading various sources and comparing the take on an issue.

    1. “News” is worth a whole new blog post in itself…As you saw (and I am glad you did), much of it is spinning corporate or political interests in a way to influence our votes, with money or our franchise. Once you realize how manipulated we are, it’s hard to read anything with an uncritical eye.

  5. antsjuices

    Well, of course, you are exactly right. Journalism is a devalued currency since not only now anyone with a social media outlet and an incomplete understanding of the first amendment can broadcast opinion, paranoia or advertising and call it news, but also since “legitimate” news outlets started hiring celebrities and ex cheerleaders to do the same instead of real journalists.

  6. The larger issue, unresolvable, is who to listen to, who to trust and why. I’m not saying only journalists are trustworthy as some are clearly not. But they/we, when working for a legitimate news outlet, are held to clear and specific standards and we will lose our jobs/incomes if we screw up.

    So it’s up to readers to try and make sense of what’s out there. Which is why my media consumption often remains limited and old school.

  7. You make a good point about how one-sided investigation makes for greater polarization. And as education sputters and falters in this country, fewer schools teach either debate or critical thinking, so the odds of civil and spirited discourse are lower than they were when you were first a journalist.

    I am interested in the financial crisis and my favorite show right now is “Your Money” on CNN because they always have a liberal view and a conservative view and while the views may be very different, often times they are very similar which gives me hope for finding a solution to the mess we are in.

    Thank you for a thoughtful and (always) well-written piece.

  8. Now that’s a truly depressing future to look forward to! I grew up in Canada, and with two languages and three full-fledged political parties (one wayyyyyy to the left) there, I was socialized to expect civil and informed discourse. I try to stimulate it in everything I produce.

    Glad this post resonated!

    I struggle to find/make time for my own reading and lesiure pursuits, so I tend to avoid the tennis-match of most opinion-based shows. The “debate” is often so narrowly framed (often to provoke better TV) that it’s not always helpful to me in trying to really understand an issue. But then, where to look?

  9. Yes, journalism still matters to me, and yes, I seek out opinions other than my own. To me, the only way to make an informed decision is to learn both sides. My middle child participated in a program called the News Literacy Project during the ’11-’12 school year. Current, working journalists teach kids about journalism, the difference between fact and opinion, and discerning what’s true or false in media. My .02, this was one of the most valuable programs I’ve seen any of my kids participate in.

    This was a great post I was glad to read!

    1. Oooh, I’d love to be a part of that — as I also live in NYC (suburb) and write often for the NYT.

      Anything that teaches kids critical thinking is so essential. Glad to hear about this!

      1. If you have time, check it out, I would guess they look for journalists with time to volunteer. Parents, teachers, and kids felt it was very valuable, and the kids had a blast!

  10. Loved reading this blog πŸ™‚
    I agree with your comment about social media replacing “news” – I blogged about it a couple of weeks ago as well!
    In regard to your question, I think it’s definitely important to get an understanding of different views! Open mindedness is a wonderful thing to have – completely shutting off all other forms breeds an unhealthy habit of disregarding any “new” information.

    1. And it’s only “new” to us!

      I loathe the word normal…as in that’s what a “normal X does.” It’s often what a normal X does that you’re aware of..and how wide is your circle?

  11. Yes, to all three of your questions. It’s sad that journalism has at least on the national level become so biased in one direction or the other and I do find myself looking into sources outside the U.S. for news especially about the U.S. I do also think it’s incredibly important to draw from sources on both sides of an issue, because somewhere in the middle is where the truth is, usually. But I suppose it’s also a reflection of times in which we live. People generally seem to polarized on their beliefs, which are formed without most of them taking the time to try and find out what the truth really is.

    1. I heard many stories on the BBC about the U.S. long before they ever showed up in American media.

      It’s easier to know nothing than actually take the time to try and understand an issue. One of the things I find depressing is a lack of public discourse. We listen to pundits opining and adopt their thoughts as our own, instead of doing an investigation of the issues to see if they actually are making sense.

      My first book, about gun use, taught me a lot that I have never heard or read publicly discussed in the media.

  12. Thank you for addressing this topic. Most news isn’t news these days. It’s opinion. I try to focus on NPR, PBS, and the BBC. I’m an unapologetic progressive but I do try to listen to other viewpoints. The political polarization in our country frightens me. We need to talk and to compromise.

    I recently decided to put my beliefs on the line and I went out on the street to register voters. I was surprised at how many people asked me how I would vote. I’m happy to say I didn’t tell them. I kept saying I wasn’t there to tell them how to vote. I was there to enable them to exercise their right to vote. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s a start.

    I enjoy your blog. Keep writing!

  13. I have serious concerns about the quality of mass media journalism these days – certainly in New Zealand, where the reduction of news to entertainment-for-advertising-revenue and the death spiral of the newspapers has essentially eliminated quality reporting. Just the other week a generation of experienced and capable journos were made redundant from the main chain. It was brought home to me when I was interviewed over my latest book; The reporter came across as an intern – and the piece was almost incoherent when it appeared. Sigh.

    When set against high-standard blogs by professional journalists – yours, for instance, which sets the bar of quality and authenticity very high indeed – the decline of mainstream media is all the more evident.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      It is depressing as hell to be experienced and skilled and surrounded by people half your age. The loss of experienced people is crazy. You get what you pay for.

  14. I read your posts because they are always so balanced and informed and I always learn something. πŸ™‚

    Imho, the biggest issue with American media right now is that they keep allowing their attention to be diverted by Trump’s wild stories and lies. Shouldn’t that “fake news” be at the bottom rather than the top? Yikes.

    I do believe that in the end, Trump could potentially do a lot of good, just as my ex-N did a lot of good for me. But that will require a lot of work of the kind that I had to do; for instance, why did I vote to marry a narcissist? I’ve noticed a lot of that kind of thinking (about Americans) going on in the Canadian, British and German news media. Generally, Americans are not coming off in a good light, and some of that is because the rest of us aren’t seeing a real attempt to investigate what they have done. Trump’s latest salvo against Canada – that we’re a national security threat – requires us to stand up to that buffoon. I’m glad that Trudeau did so immediately. Like Donald Tusk (EU official) recently said, “with friends like him [Trump] who needs enemies.” I don’t think that media outside of the US is having these difficulties with “fake news” – perhaps they should consider why.

    And it looks like Andrea Horwath will win in Ontario. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks!

      I think there is some soul-searching, certainly within some elements of the Democratic Party, to determine how they got their asses handed to them so thoroughly — and apparently so unexpectedly. That arrogance and myopia has cost us all dearly.

      Now the problem is how much they will change and truly attract (back) the voters who went for Trump and who so deeply admire him….for what, I cannot imagine.

      Americans are extremely ill-equipped to understand that they are not the Best and the Brightest — especially not in the world’s eyes now. When so few can even place other countries on a map, or understand other political choices that are less toxic, it’s not likely we’ll see much of a change.

      I agree that far too much of the media’s attention is the daily flimflam he creates to distract from the many changes he and his minions are enacting. Not to mention the daily spread of $$$$$$$$ and influence for his goddamned daughter and her dolt of a husband.

      It all sickens me.

      1. Your point about “the best and the brightest” seems to be an illusion blocking the vision of many and causing a lot of fallout. Yes, his behaviour (including that of his extended family) is sickening and not much different from what you see in tinpot dictatorships the world over.

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