A modest proposal to resurrect journalism

By Joseph A. Wemhoff

Record-low numbers of Americans trust the “mainstream media,” which daily spouts its fulminating hatred of President Trump and conservative values. The media no longer maintain any pretense of adherence to journalistic canons of objectivity, fairness and truth. The Buzzfeed contretemps is the most recent example. Fake news is shamelessly spun by twisting facts – witness the Covington school children who were falsely accused of racism at the March for Life.

The leaders of the major media companies are open and notorious in their flaunting of journalistic standards, as they push a one-sided narrative, like Pravda or Voelkischer Beobachter.

For two reasons, the death of journalism is one of the greatest problems facing America today.

Firstly, as Aeschylus observed, in war the first casualty is truth. This holds in today’s culture war. When journalists abandon truth, journalism abnegates its very reason for existence. Like salt that loses its flavor, it becomes worthless.

An honest free press with integrity is indispensable for the effective functioning of our republic. An excellent article entitled “The Fourth Estate” by UbuntuFM on Medium.com, Dec. 2, 2017, put it perfectly: “Journalists are the guardians of veritas. … Facts matter. Facts connect us to reality.”

Without an objective press that will speak truth to power, our institutions operate in pursuit of their own interests, not those of society. These centrifugal forces eventually will tear society apart. For this reason alone, journalistic standards need to be restored in America.

Secondly, the death of journalism is directly causing the Great Divide in America. People no longer trust what is reported, but they are too complacent to actively seek truth. So, people eschew logical thought and instead retreat to that media which they “like” and “feel” most comfortable with.

People adopt the worldview of their media. It is “brainwashing” at its finest. George Orwell likely would be surprised at how pervasively most people blindly follow the often-contradictory narratives of CNNMSNBCABCFOXCBS. Even as people today scoff at how Germans of the 1930s bought National Socialism, they buy today’s media narratives in lockstep.

If all media outlets embraced veritas, then the polarization of America would be mitigated.

So, what is the solution?

It is not government regulation. The Fourth Estate needs to be free of interference from the very institutions to which it has a duty to be adversarial.

The solution will not be found with the heads of the major media companies. For them, two ideologically opposed Americas is good business. The conflict drives profits and bonuses as these executives give their “bases” what they want. Truth is not always good business.

The solution will come from those who value truth, honor and the canons of journalism. Who are these guardians of the profession?

Some might be existing institutions listed by Jeremy Porter in his excellent May 18, 2009, Journalistics blog post entitled “30 Organizations Dedicated to Keeping Journalism Great.”

Courageous individuals can, and should, make a difference. In her book “Merchants of Truth,” former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson blasts her former newspaper, as well as the Washington Post, for their bias. NBC News veteran Bill Arkin recently resigned, excoriating NBC and the broader media.

Importantly, the heads of the major journalism schools in America have a vested interest in the purity of their profession. What would happen if these leaders found their common voice, demanding that journalistic values be followed by practitioners? What if they began rating individual reporters and individual news stories based on journalistic canons? What if they “called out” by name, on a weekly basis, incidents of bias by the mainstream media?

Sanctions could be imposed. These might include revocation of journalistic degrees, establishment of a “wall of shame” for violators of journalistic standards, development of college case studies around specific instances of journalistic misconduct, etc.

In the Middle Ages, guilds enforced standards on professions, from masonry to garment making. Today, the function of a “guild” for journalists could be performed by the major journalism colleges and universities. Ensuring that the canons of the profession be followed in these unprecedented times seems a logical, and necessary, extension of the mission of schools of journalism.

The bright flame of journalism has been all but extinguished. To resurrect the profession – and, more importantly, to save America – the keepers of the flame need to act.

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