Along with all the fundamental societal changes going on, over, under and around us these days, the media is wandering into a swamp from which it won’t escape in anything recognizable or familiar. In fact, on the national level, it’s already there.
Though I’ve spent much of my life in and around a lot of media, unless you’re a stranger to these irregular musings, you know I’ve become one of its more severe critics. Trust, balance, accuracy, responsibility - all have eroded. To find such descriptive media qualities, you’ve now got to ignore much of it, and go searching for what little remains that’s worth your time. That search is getting more difficult.
The swamp - as I’ve begun to call it - is this. While all media has traditionally been relied upon to report, some are now taking on the irresponsible additional step of deciding what’s true and what’s not and mixing the two. Rather than report and letting you decide, which as been the basic maxim historically, media outlets have entered into the “we-report-we’ll-tell-you-what-to-believe” mode.
This phenomenon has been around for some time, but it’s being raised to a new level. It now involves more of the traditional “straight down the middle” institutions who’ve used editorial and opinion pages in the past for expressing viewpoints or positions on this, that and the other.
No more. And if you want to pinpoint where much of the change recently began, look no further than the Republican Presidential Primary. In fact, you can hone it down even more. It’s spelled T-R-U-M-P.
For many years, larger newspapers and some TV outlets have used what they euphemistically called “fact check” features. While reporting the basic event, they’d set aside some space or time to “fact check” and note where the subject of their coverage veered into half-truths or no truths. That’s been considered acceptable and with which I have no problem.
But now, things have gone beyond that to glaring headlines of criticism or opinion. Stories now too often lead with something like “Trump crazily attacks Bush.” Or “Trump irresponsibly harkens to practices of Nazis.” Or “The Donald falsely blames Obama for inaction.” A headline designed to get you to read by adding a twist of sensationalism and opinion. Right wing media has done that for many years. Now, more moderate and mainstream media have joined in.
I’ve a theory for this unsavory practice. For what it’s worth, I think Trump - and in some cases Cruz, Fiorina, Carson, Huckabee and others - have made such outrageous statements or claims that editors and publishers finally felt it was time to openly rebut. I used to often feel that way. But an old friend - for whom I have much respect - always said “You report and let the audience/reader sort it out.” He was right. Then.
But the level of political discourse has, I believe, become so filled with half-truths, irresponsible claims and outright lies that much of the media has stepped over the line. Additionally, the fact that Trump - in particular - can utter such bald-faced lies and not lose support, has driven the media into this swamp. He continues his inflammatory and fact-less campaign saying things that should have killed him in the polls. But it hasn’t. And in some polls, his support has risen.
Where my wise friend offered good advice 40 years ago, we’re seeing daily proof that too many people - especially those supporting Trump and Cruz - don’t know enough about their government or true conditions today to be able to “sort it out.” Or don’t care. I’ve watched interviews with more than one Trump follower who acknowledge his lies about something but say all politicians lie and they would just ignore Trump’s B.S..
Trump and some of the others are playing to fears of these folks - educated or not - with racist demagoguery, religious bigotry and offering false promises of security and setting everything right. Back to where it was. Before the fears. In doing so, they’re playing to people who want reassurances - honest or not - that things will “get back to normal.”
The Republican presidential campaign has, thus far, been an embarrassment to the nation, the world and - especially - to what remains of the GOP. It’s been filled with totally unqualified candidates, spouting verbal garbage and showing their ignorance of how our government works. When it works. Billionaires have gutted the party by going around it with their bags of bucks and have tossed Prebius and what remains into the gutter. No one - no one - is stepping up to salvage the Republican Party and restore it as our second national political representative which we badly need.
Still, from a perspective of responsible journalism, there’s no excuse for the national media being both the reporter and the debunking mechanism as it’s now doing. This campaign will - God willing - end some day soon. Whoever’s left standing - Republican or Democrat - is going to have to pick up the pieces and form a functioning government. And we’ll need a responsible media to help inform and restore public faith in that new government. That can’t happen if the national media has made itself into some sort of judgmental messenger.
Trump, Huckabee, Fiorina, Huckabee and some others are - in my opinion - unfit for public office at any level. But a media openly judging and denouncing our affairs as “reporting”scares me even more.