The Boston Globe earlier this month asked editors across the country to join them in admonishing President Trump for his use of the term fake news and for referring to the media as the enemy of the people. However, the media’s reputation with the public is low, so it is only fair to look before admonishing. Is the media the enemy? This discussion will go pretty deep into journalism, so if you’re not interested, you can drop this letter here and come back next month.
Let’s put this one in the form of a debate. The media has the bully pulpit all the time, so we will take the side of Trump and propose: Resolved: The media is the enemy of the people.
To get to the root of the issue, it is necessary to look anew at the meaning of the media as it relates to the people. The foundation of freedom of expression in the United States rests on the shoulders of such colonial paragons as Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, but extends back to Greek times, with special attention to British Restoration writers John Milton, Jonathan Swift and John Dryden. In short, these foundational champions of free expression believed in individual freedom for individual thought and individual expression. Franklin, Jefferson and Paine believed deeply enough in free expression that all three had prices on their heads, courtesy of George III.
These men had no conception of intellect by committee. In his Areopagitica, Milton said it is the same to kill a book as to kill a man, because the essence of the man is his ideas, and his ideas are in the book. To kill a book, Milton argued, is to kill that part of the man that could live on after his death. To the paragons, there could only be one Beethoven, one Descartes or one Newton. Individual thought, individual freedom and individual expression mattered. They did not envision a collective voice where one Beethoven or failed art drunk would speak for all.
This point is probably definitive of Trump’s thinking. If you look at the current composition of the mainstream media, there is virtually no remaining independent ownership of media. It is all corporate amalgamation. We have been told that the so-called editors and anchors are “independent,” but it is clear from recent firings that they are not independent. Case in point: firing of CEO Moonves this week by CBS. They are employees and serve only so long as they serve according to protocols and say things that make their employers money. Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Milton, Swift and Dryden never intended commercial speech to be protected. The Supreme Court, unfortunately, in the 1980s, has ruled otherwise, and we are suffering as the result.
The evolution of the media from independent, family-owned businesses to commercial entities was accomplished largely from the ʼ70s through the ʼ90s and was mostly unnoticed. After all, who would tell us? Tax law made it prudent to make sole proprietorships into corporations, and corporations bought each other.
There was a concurrent shift as high-producing salesmen were anointed publishers, while the audience-focused “editor” level became subordinate. It was this shift, not the internet, that had the greatest effect on the decline of print in the first 10 years of this century.
Another change was occurring among editors. As editors were replaced by salesmen, they also took on attributes more typical of employees than owners. Most of you know from personal experience the difference that occurs when you start signing the fronts of cheques, instead of the backs.
Numerous surveys point to an editorial shift to the left. Over 80 percent of these newsroom respondents self-identify as small-l liberals. This is borne out by looking at media content on virtually any area of controversy. While society may be embroiled in a debate over abortion, gun control, marijuana reform, immigration or voting regulations, the media devotes virtually all of its energy to promoting one side over the other. In the instance of Trump, this is seemingly unarguable, as can be seen by doing a content analysis of any medium on the search term “impeach.”
The media defends itself by claiming it is objective. While this appears on its surface to be a virtue, it does not stand any test. More importantly, it does not stand to reason that the paragons would stand for it. As noted, George III had plenty of his “side” of issues already in circulation, and the defenders of free speech would have died rather than print his side. Free speech, to them, was freedom for THEM to speak, not to parrot the platitudes of the commercial class.
Another unsettling development has been in the use of language. Academia and the media have long held that part of their duty is to be the conservator of language. Change is a function of language; there is no disputing that, but while the language of the streets can ebb and flow, academia and media once claimed to maintain a stable standard so readers and students 10, 20 or 100 years down the line could understand meaning and context in media reports.
No longer. Both joyfully jumped on the bus when somebody proposed that pronouns are sexist. You saw this with the introduction of such phrases as “A boy should always fix their bike.” Boy is one, their is more than one. The sentence does not agree in number and is ungrammatical. It does not matter who says otherwise.
The current war on language now extends far beyond pronouns and we are constantly admonished that we must say this or must not say that, no different than when George III was king, and society responded, then and now, with a near-endless string of work-arounds, to include slang, code, pidgins, hand signs and creoles. A recent circular from the New York Times (“The ABCs of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+”) even presents a “style book” dictating how media are to name status groups that deviate statistically from social sexual norms. This becomes important later, when self-identified “protectors” decide to assault somebody’s job, family, social position or net worth based on a back-formed offense to fit the provided definitions. These legitimately may be issues for debate, but this effort is aimed at prescribing what journalists are allowed to say, not discussing the social implications of funding sex reversals.
Importantly, we cannot usually discover exactly who issues the rules on behalf of political correctness: who says we can or cannot use a word in a way. Therefore, we cannot force them to defend their positions in public. It is all in a kind of murmuring, foggy underworld, only to surface when some media, directed, misdirected or not directed, decides to propose it, demand it and enforce it.
As the media has slipped from conservator to activist, it has not only adopted substantial perversions of Standard Edited English, it has also lost sight of other grammatical, stylistic and formal standards, giving the impression that not only do they not understand writing, but they are not competent to do so. This goes to their actual mental integrity. Our society’s Chuck Todds don’t like seeing themselves portrayed as illiterate, but even Mark Twain, no literary midget, himself, observed of the press: “That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse.” (License of the press speech, Monday Evening Club March 31, 1873)
To Twain, the elite media was remarkably unbrilliant.
It is an axiom that clear writing is a sign of clear thinking, and its inverse is true, as well. Unclear thinking is inseparable from muddled communication. Contemporary media show neither clear writing nor clear thinking. Rather, they collectively give the impression of j-school graduates that had neither the drive nor the resources to get an influential career in law, the military or politics.
There are essentially two kinds of journalists. One is the person that has an innate desire to create the public record. This person is focused on facts, sources and context. The other type of journalist is the person that wants to “change the world.” Without going into a side essay, let it be sufficient (not suffice!) to say the two types are not compatible, and the recorder is virtually extinct. We live with an effete cadre of wanna-be world-changers, much to the detriment of the record, and a conservative journalist either works in a small corner of the media world or hides in a cube in the mainstream, hoping to escape persecution and job loss.
This desire to change the world has led journalism to charge to the bottom in virtues. For decades, the media, which includes film and video media, has championed itself as “breaking new ground,” or “pushing the envelope.” Yet, it is hard to find an example of pushing the envelopes toward decency or virtue, leaving the most innocent, beautiful and young in society uttering public vulgarities, obscenities and profanities that would in earlier years have made a whore blush. Today’s whores, of course, resort to blackmail when age lessens their utility, and blushing is très passé.
The issue of sources is of interest. Commercial media leans heavily on social media and the buddy system for its sources Forget about asking somebody that knows. The most common interview we see these days is one journalist interviewing another about what they heard somewhere else. A variation is a journalist interviewing a paid “contributor.” Finally, when I was in school the option of anonymity for sources was held as a last resort. Today it is rare to find a source with the integrity to stand up and say his truth, and with the internet, the fear has spread to the reporters, now preferring to refer to themselves by unimaginative nomes des plume. Reporters are fond of accountability for everybody but themselves, and even the NYT last week elected to become anonymous. Now we are regaled with the prescient opinions of a nobody.
The offenses of the press against law and order and a free society have become actually too numerous to catalog. You have anarchy in the streets portrayed as peaceable assembly, crowds reported where there are none, character assassination of non-conforming communications specialists (Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for one), direct harassment of high-profile bureaucrats and on and on, including well-documented and undeniable instances of “fake news”.
The media conveniently ignores that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for peaceful assembly (Freedom 2(c), and it substitutes riots for petitions as equivalencies. Protest is neither petition nor debate; it is the ascension of mob rule and the subversion of law.
The Boston Globe did not envision providing either two sides of a story or a fair and open discussion when it called for a gang-bang of Trump. Therefore, if the media is not what it claims to be, if it is not independent at all but a union of employees, if it disrupts open dialog and creates a propaganda machine dedicated to reinforcing one side of any story over and over, if it promotes the destruction of the public peace and profits by filming it, then it appears Trump is right and the press has become the enemy of the people.
If you feel this note has made a worthy point or two in defence of free expression and democracy, and against the Boston Globe and its mission, please feel free to forward it to your local print, broadcast and digital media, as well as your provincial and federal representatives. After all, somebody besides the media should have a voice.
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