Requiem For An Unbiased Press

“Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can’t be objective about Nixon.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, interview, Atlantic Monthly 09/97

“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
(from “On The Campaign Trail”)

Once again, the Press has become the story.

Out of morbid curiosity I was browsing the CNN website today.  Half of the breaking news stories are about how much media coverage Senator Warren is getting for her Courageous Stand Against Tyranny, and the other half all reference the Trump Administration’s contention that there’s a lot of ‘fake news’ out there, and that CNN is leading the charge.  Much of this latter is tongue-in-cheek gloating about Sean Spicer’s mistaken belief in an Islamic bomber in Atlanta, or the much-celebrated Bowling Green Massacre.

On first glance one might well be tempted to believe Donald Trump; after all, it’s apparent, isn’t it?  The media hates him and his administration, and they don’t bother to do more than thinly conceal their bias.  Even NPR, that bastion of unbiased reporting, recently released a thinly-veiled character assassination piece on Trump advisor Steve Bannon, a story which concluded he’s declared war on the Pope.

To be fair to NPR, they failed in their goal not because they were so very clumsy (though they were) but instead because what they’re saying isn’t news.  No, Bannon doesn’t hate Pope Francis, and even from this story it’s evident he’s not out to topple him, but we already know in our hearts he could and would.  They missed assassinating Bannon’s character because it’s such a tiny target.  It would be like taking aim at Trump’s sense of humility or Sean Spicer’s spelling skills.  But I digress.

We’re now living at the height of the Information Age.  Print media had long since surrendered to broadcast news like radio and the television networks; now they’re making a comeback on the Internet.  And right along with them is every two-bit blogger and neckbearded hack who’s ever read “Transmetropolitan”.  It used to be you had to have a journalism degree and two years on the copy desk to get a byline; now all you need is a cell phone and WordPress.

Which is both beautiful and terrible.  On the one hand you get me, feeding you pure unbiased reporting pure as manna from Heaven but with only half the calories.  On the other, we’ve got the Occupy Democrats and Trump Train propaganda mills dumping lies by the bale on social media streams.  We get the altParks Twitter feeds and live-stream debates from the Senate floor, but we’ve also got Breitbart legitimizing a constant flow of raving loonies and purveyors of discount tinfoil headgear alongside a very few sensible (yet definitely conservative) bloggers and no way to tell the difference.

The thing we’re missing about the war between Trump and the media, though, is this:  We’ve never had an unbiased media.  Never once.

In the War of 1812, a mob torched a pro-Madison Baltimore newspaper, leaving Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry” Lee beaten and bloody in its defense.  Five decades later, it was a newspaper editor who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, touching off the War Between The States.  The news media has led the charge on social reform and war fever for as long as it’s been around, and the exceptions we remember, such as Uncle Walter reading the evening news, weren’t objective but rather conservative — which is itself a bias.

And so the press today is only doing their duty as they see fit, in opposing what appears to them to be a brutal and corrupt administration which revels in trampling those essential freedoms so fundamental to our way of life.

But the Great American Voting Public still hasn’t entirely forgiven CNN for its unabashed fact-twisting over the Bernie-Hillary primary last year.  It was so blatant, so overt, and so very obviously corrupt that Trump’s campaign had a ready-made answer to every attack — and he won handily as a direct result.  It’s become evident that we’ve now got a popular press peopled with button-down latte addicts who think they’re Hunter S. Thompson.

They’re not.  (Alas, neither am I.)

This is changing; the public has a new target in Conway’s ‘alternative facts’, a marvelous phrase which backfired badly due to — wait for it — the massive media bias against Trump and his press team.  But what is coming out of this shift from hate to hate is not a distrust of the Administration or of the media but rather of all reporting in general.  American voters may be fickle but they don’t easily forgive being lied to.

“Facts are the closest thing we have to a national religion. In America… even advertisers aren’t supposed to just lie. The truth is the last thing here that isn’t openly for sale. This is why so many people responded to Conway not as if she’d said something stupid – we’re used to that from our politicians – but more as though she’d said something irreligious.”
Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, 08 Feb 2017

The danger here is not that our distrust of what we’re told will spread; that’s actually quite a healthy approach to press releases and editorials.  We should learn to think for ourselves, to check sources and carefully sift through story after story in our quest for truth.  But a moment’s careful consideration will reveal the flaw:  Our cell-phone society has been conditioned by years of instant information access away from critical thought and toward immediate mindless acceptance.

The danger is that, right now, at the height of the Age of Information, we will seize on this as our excuse to finally stop thinking for good.

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