Pontius Pilate once famously asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Today we might ask, “Where is truth?”
We live in an information maelstrom which is rapidly evolving into a cesspool. Fake news? Alternative facts? Aren’t those terms oxymorons? We seem to be experiencing the apotheosis of spin over substance. Time was when the Fourth Estate (originally the press, now the “mainstream” media) played an essential role in informing and educating the public on the true state of civic affairs. Journalistic standards once required verification (“fact checking”), often with multiple sources, before publication. Sadly, this “journalism of verification” appears to have been replaced by an ascendant “journalism of assertion” (“The Elements of Journalism,” Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001), which is confounding the public and poisoning our national discourse. It is like we are all locked in a “parallel universe” episode of the Twilight Zone.
First, it’s wrong. Second, it’s incredibly frustrating and confusing. We all have our own lives and day jobs, and don’t want (can’t afford) to spend time and energy separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to information we need to know. Third, really important decisions get made based on this information; if it’s not accurate or fairly and objectively presented (i.e., true) then the quality of those decisions may be compromised, with potentially negative and serious consequences. We are playing with fire.
Whose fault is it? Not the right question. Too many suspects. The real question is, who needs to step up to the challenge of fixing the problem? The answer, I believe, is the self-same Fourth Estate. Why? Because if they don’t, they will likely be disintermediated into extinction. And that would actually be very bad for our democracy.
56 years ago (January 25, 1961), JFK held the first televised news conference. While previous presidents had used other media (FDR’s “fireside chats”) to speak directly to the American public, the use of television gave a greater sense of immediacy and intimacy to the event, providing a more authentic and unfiltered connection between leader and led. Later presidents used this media occasionally to broadcast important messages, usually from the Oval Office, in their own words, directly to the nation. The existence of an alternative communication channel posed no real threat to the Fourth Estate’s journalistic primacy so long as its reporting was on the whole accurate, fair and objective.
Then that all changed. I blame 24 hour news. Too many outlets scrambling for content to fill airtime and attract advertisers. No time for fact checking. Breaking news is the holy grail; best if it’s dramatic, shocking or scandalous. And I blame the Internet, or rather the fact that anyone can post anything about anyone without regard to any standard of truthfulness. And all too often this unverified information becomes “content” for the voracious maw of the always-on news broadcasters. It’s a modern day informational version of the Military-Industrial Complex that President Eisenhower warned against the same year of JFK’s first press conference.
And now our newest president, believing that the media may not always fairly, accurately and objectively communicate his vision, is using current technology to perform an end-run around the Fourth Estate. His tweets may be the modern day equivalent of FDR’s fireside chats and JFK’s press conference. But they are also an unequivocal challenge to the continuing relevance of the traditional media; I don’t expect them to stop any time soon.
This is a wake up call for all the editors, publishers, producers, writers, anchors and other leaders in media. The Fourth Estate is losing (has lost?) its credibility and is at risk of losing its relevance. We need a free press which acts as an independent guardian of truth to hold our leaders to account. Our fervent request: get your act together, live up to your historic standards, and reclaim your critical role as the gatherer and disseminator of “true facts.” Much depends on that.