A Free Press Isn’t Free
Why Journalism Matters
by David Todd McCarty | Monday, November 28, 2016
My very first class at Temple University in 1986 was Journalism 101 with Dr. O’Shea. He began with a question. He wanted to know how many students had seen the Calvin Klein ad underwear campaign and every hand in the class went up without exception. The campaign was part of the culture. Marky Mark. Kate Moss. These black and white ads were synonymous with the 1980’s and were undoubtedly hanging on 75% of the dorm rooms throughout campus and beyond.
He then asked how many people thought that sex was effective in advertising. Many of the hands went down. Then he asked how many people thought that it was appropriate to use sex in advertising. Only a few of us remained.
He then explained that we weren’t there to discuss the value of using sex appeal in advertising underwear for Calvin Klein, but to discuss journalism. And the first thing we needed to understand was that there was no such thing as “objective journalism.” No two of us saw the world around us the same. We all had a lens through which we saw the world, that combined our own experiences, morals, religious beliefs, and childhoods into a perception of life.
Just like we all had different thoughts on something that was common to us all, our experiences colored our outlook on the things we saw and heard and we had to stay vigilant about allowing our personal experiences from coloring our judgement, and more importantly, how we reported it.
Journalism shouldn’t be simply a vehicle for our own personal biases, but an honest accounting of what is happening, or at least as honest as we can muster. But is there any integrity left in journalism? Is there any objectivity? Who can we really trust in this day and age of relativism and fake news?
John Pilger wrote in 2002:
Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what George Orwell called the ‘official truth’. They simply cipher and transmit lies. It really grieves me that so many of my fellow journalists can be so manipulated that they become really what the French describe as ‘functionaires’, functionaries, not journalists. Many journalists become very defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those words ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They’ve been taken over… [they] now mean the establishment point of view… Journalists don’t sit down and think, ‘I’m now going to speak for the establishment.’ Of course not. But they internalize a whole set of assumptions, and one of the most potent assumptions is that the world should be seen in terms of its usefulness to the West, not humanity.
So what is the value of the news media? Television news organizations have been compromised by the hunt for ratings and newspaper news rooms have been decimated by the internet and falling readership. Maybe there is no saving broadcast news. Journalism was always somewhat beholden to the all mighty dollar, but between mergers and the creation of media monopolies, there’s likely no going back. With the development of Fox News as a propaganda arm of the Right, we’ve split the country into two camps where you can find the news that fits your worldview without worrying about a common set of facts.
There is no meaningful debate anymore, not because we are all such horrible people, but because we don’t agree on what is true anymore. When you lose a common language, you can’t have a reasonable dialogue.
In my view, newspapers might be our last hope to find responsible journalism that has any sort of ethical standard for checking facts and investigating worthwhile stories.
When President-elect Trump tweeted about the “failing Times” in his effort to discredit their reporting, he might have been overstating the situation at the Times, but as he’s apt to do, he was tapping into a general consensus, that newspapers are about to go under.
As recent as 2003, there were more than 55 million daily newspapers circulated in the country, 3.5 million less than in 1960 and 7.5 million less than 1985, the highest nation-wide circulation number in the last half century, according to the Newspaper Association of America.
There were more newspapers with at least 250,000 readers in 2003 (36) than in 1950 (35), though eight less than 1993 (42), the historic peak of that number, a 16 percent decline.
The number of the smallest U.S. dailies – those with less than 50,000 readers – shrunk from nearly 1,600 to 1,239 in 2003, a 21 percent decline. The bottom half of the country’s largest daily newspapers – with circulations between 100,001 and 250,000 – also rapidly declined – from 84 in 1950 and a 1970 peak at 92 to 67 in 2003, a 27 percent trimming from its 1970 height and a 20 percent fall since 1950, according to the data.
So, while small dailies suffered the largest declines, largely due to their loss of classifieds, and more people began to get their news from alternative sources, “print remains a vital part of newspapers’ distribution picture. In 2015, print circulation makes up 78% of weekday circulation and 86% of all Sunday circulation.” It’s worth noting that while traditional newspaper readership has most definitely declined, many people still rely on traditional news media for their news, even if they initially click on a link they saw on Twitter or Facebook as opposed to reading an actual paper or logging on to a media website.
The truth is, people are still reading newspapers, but with advertising dollars down, subscriptions are more vital than ever before.
If you look through history, and particularly through literature, you will find a whole cavalcade of quotes from authors demeaning journalism and journalists as leeches and scum. Journalism has always been a dirty business, I guess. But as Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings said before he died under suspicious circumstances:
Janet Malcolm famously described journalism as the art of seduction and betrayal. Any reporter who didn’t see journalism as “morally indefensible” was either “too stupid” or “too full of himself,” she wrote. I disagreed. Without shutting the door on the possibility that I was both stupid and full of myself, I’d never bought into the seduction and betrayal conceit. At most, journalism – particularly when writing about media-hungry public figures – was like the seduction of a prostitute. The relationship was transactional. They weren’t talking to me because they liked me or because I impressed them; they were talking to me because they wanted the cover of Rolling Stone.
Politicians, corporations and the powerful still want the media to cover their every word. It’s still the little leverage we have. They want to be heard.
But to borrow a phrase from the Right, “A Free Press Isn’t Free.” If you want to support investigative journalism, actual newsrooms, and factual news, you have to stop relying on free news.
It takes a lot of moola to fool around with national magazines, regardless of their politics. It takes even more if the paper is hell bent on shoving a hot poker up the rear end of the Establishment, as that editorial posture is not conducive to a massive influx of advertising dollars…a lot of people on the left still cherish the idea that Ramparts went under because I bought people drinks.
It costs lot of money to run a news organization, regardless of whether it’s over the airwaves, printed on paper, or living on a website somewhere. Therefore you have to decide how much you want your news to be controlled by massive, multi-national corporations and billionaires, or whether you’d like some assurance that the value of a free press is it’s ability to speak truth to power.
We’ve never seen a larger need than for someone to speak truth to power.
We’re already seeing a situation where, since winning the election, Donald Trump hasn’t held a press conference. He is not interested in being questioned by the press. Instead he holds private meetings, hidden from the public, and produces finely edited videos that he releases on YouTube. He tweets conspiracy theories to distract from real issues. He issues ultimatums. He’s a tyrant.
Mr. Trump clearly believes he doesn’t need the media. He’s done a pretty masterful job of manipulating the media towards his own ends. We have to accept that as a reality up to now.
So if we have any hope of fighting Trump’s dangerous brand of fascism, if we have any hope at all, we need a strong free press that has the patience, will and resources to call him out when he’s lying, question his motives, use the court when necessary, and force him to be accountable for his actions.
It’s time for you to fight for democracy. It’s time for you to fight for freedom of speech.
It’s time to stop hiding on the wrong side of the firewall. It’s time for you to start paying your share because as I said, a free press isn’t free.
Below are the top three national newspapers in America (I didn’t include USA Today). Consider subscribing to one or more of them. I myself was already subscribing to the NY Times, but today I also added the Washington Post. Not because I need a second newspaper, but because I want more than one team to this struggle for freedom.
I’ll leave you with this and I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but as you think about the question of “why me?” I want you to consider that you need to be the change you want to see in the world. You need to do your little part. And right now, I’m asking you to support a free press.
Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who was an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in a concentration camp, said in an interview before his death:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
It’s time to do something. It’s time to speak out. Before it’s too late, and they take you away too.