Reflections on the State of Journalism & Saving Local Newspapers

Regular readers may recall that my first career was that of a professional journalist, trained on the city desk of the Washington Post. Committed as I am to sound journalism, I am concerned with both the loss of newspapers around the country and the unrelenting assault on the media by the President.

Free and healthy newspapers are essential to a democratic society, which is why the free press is embedded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  They’re our watchdogs.

We can all be proud of how the media have kept us informed and, frankly, kept their cool in the hostile “enemy of the people” environment fostered by the current occupant of the White House, who labels any coverage that doesn’t flatter him “fake news” without providing a specific response to the subject at hand. Most upsetting is the portrayal of straight news reporting as biased.

The sad fact is that the general public lacks journalistic literacy. Specifically, readers (and non-readers) conflate news articles with columns and editorials. Because the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, criticize the President editorially, readers too readily attribute that bias to the news pages, which is simply wrong.

A core principle of news reporting is “no unattributed facts or opinions.” Of course, a reporter uses his or her discretion as to which facts and opinions are included, but if, for example, an impeachment witness states facts or opinions derogatory of the President, reporting the testimony is straight news, and a good reporter will seek a response from the President.  But labeling such an article “fake news” or “a lie” is not a denial, it is a refusal to refute the testimony. 

I know that some Trump supporters will say “hogwash” to me asserting that straight news articles are unbiased, but that only proves the point I have made above. America’s newspapers would do us all a favor if they eliminated columns and editorials and printed only straight news articles and letters to the editor. Attacks on the media by the President are made more believable because of the inability of too many readers to distinguish news articles from columns and editorials.

TV networks also contribute to this conflating of news and opinion. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all have daytime news programs, but they devote evening hours to personal opinion. You don’t see that on the three broadcast networks.

Financial health is another serious problem. While the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Washington Post are all thriving, too many local newspapers are downsizing and going out of business. We need some billionaires committed to journalistic standards to rescue them from owners interested only in profit.

My Cable News Viewing Recommendations

As a follow-up to last week’s item about our “Post-Factual Era” coming to an end, I have two cable viewing recommendations for readers wanting to understand current political events.

1)   Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.  Although CNN is my weekday viewing choice, I record this show for viewing on Sunday. I’m impressed with Chris’s fair questioning of guests from both parties and his choice of panelists for political discussions.

2)  Reliable Sources. This Sunday morning program on CNN is all about the media and is essential viewing in this error of “fake news” claims from both sides of the political divide. I recommend subscribing to this program’s daily email newsletter, which you can do at www.ReliableSources.com

In Defense of Journalists — They’re Working for You!

I’ve written about the rules of journalism before. (See my Feb. 2, 2017, column at JimSmithColumns.com.) Being a journalist myself, educated in the importance of keeping personal opinion out of news articles, as distinct from columns or editorials, it continues to bother me that the general public doesn’t recognize these distinctions.  Because of that, it’s too easy to dismiss factual news articles as “fake” based on a publication’s editorial position.

Yes, the Washington Post and New York Times express liberal positions in their editorials and many op-ed columns, but the news writers are solid professionals who report just the facts, uncolored by their own or their editorial board’s positions on a given topic. 

While tradition may dictate that each newspaper have opinion pages vs. news pages, it doesn’t have to be that way. I think that newspapers might do themselves, their readers and society a favor by deleting editorial and op-ed pages and publishing only signed letters to the editor.