Alan Zendell, May 16, 2023
One of the myths post-WW2 American children were taught in school was that journalism was about reporting the truth and scrupulously distinguishing facts not only from lies, but from opinions as well. I bought into that wholeheartedly, because I also believed all the other stuff we were taught: America saved the world from Fascism; America is where the good guys live; America is the greatest, fairest, most democratic country on Earth where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed. I was naively, unabashedly patriotic, and why not?
Europe and Asia were a mess, and we had not only just “won” the worst war in the history of the world, but the next bunch of bad guys was already gearing up to destroy democracy and everything else that was good. Communism, we were taught, was the polar opposite of Fascism. Yet, as a child, I could see little difference between the Fascist regimes of the 1930s and the Communist dictatorships of the 1950s.
I didn’t realize until much later that my education had been strongly influenced by government propaganda and an unwritten pact between the government and the major news outlets. We believed unreservedly in the First Amendment to the Constitution – as long as no one challenged the basic truths I noted above. I lived in New York City until I was twenty-four, long enough to see the New York Post begin to degenerate into the Murdoch gossip rag it is today. In the following years, the Washington Post was my hometown newspaper. I was such a true believer, I complained that the Vietnam/Watergate era Post, despite its heroic coverage of the war and the Nixon administration, was often guilty of representing opinion as fact, something they corrected as their journalistic stature grew.
Then, we entered the age of cable news. CNN showed us live coverage of the first Gulf War, uncensored by anyone. What may have been the last completely unedited coverage of a major news event, on December 9, 1992, was reported by the Washington Post as “the first amphibious [U. S. Marine] landing televised live. With scores of reporters and camera operators lining the beach in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, the pre-dawn landing unfolded as an almost farcical event, with bright camera lights illuminating what was supposed to have been a stealthy military operation in potentially hostile territory.”
Journalism had reached a fork in the road. On one hand, the government began to control what news media were allowed to cover, embedding journalists in military operations under the supervision of the commanders. On another, cable news outlets of every political stripe began popping up, unveiling a new kind of journalism which made no bones about graying the line between fact and fiction. The stars of this new way to disseminate information were Fox News and Facebook, the former designing itself around a commitment to bring down liberal politics, and the latter employing a business model that put profit ahead of national security and truth.
As news media began advocating political ideologies, I thought CNN strove for balance, although as one of Donald Trump’s favorite targets, his followers routinely attacked it as biased. While being grouped with entities like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal might be viewed as a positive thing, it hurt CNN’s ratings; whatever else it may be, cable news is about money and sponsors. So CNN decided to attract a broader audience, i. e., they began shifting their image to the right. What more logical thing could they do, then, than offer Donald Trump a free hour to dispense his lies? They called it a Town Hall, but many people viewed it as a thinly veiled Trump political rally, an impression supported by the fact that the live audience was dominated by Trump supporters.
Jay Rosen, who has taught journalism at New York University for thirty-six years, addressed that in an interview aired by MSNBC on May 12. He criticized the way the media cover politics in America, correctly noting that they feed a kind of horserace mentality – Americans are obsessed with polls and predictions, so that’s what the media give them. Rosen pointed out, however, that that plays into the hands of political spin experts and people who purchase airtime on news networks.
Rosen believes the proper way for journalists to approach the 2024 election is to focus on the likely consequences for the country and for average Americans if Trump, Biden, or anyone else should win. How will our lives be impacted? How will America’s place in the world fare? If journalists take on those tasks responsibly, perhaps Americans will start taking the future of our country seriously instead of waving the flag for whomever panders most effectively. Can you imagine that?
Have all the objective journalists and opinion editors at CNN retracted all their accusations of Trump regarding the “Russia-Gate” charges and accusations?