Speaking to a college media class recently brought a basic question from a student: “What,” she asked, “is ‘main stream’ media?”
Damn good question. I’ve spent more than half century in “media” and don’t really know the answer.
Some define any media outlet owned by a national chain as “mainstream.” Others say the national news broadcast organizations lead the list of “main streamers.”
Right wingers call most media outlets “leftist.” Those on the left and point at Fox News and others as examples of “domination of the media by the right wing.”
Jim Echols, the city editor who decided to let a 17-year-old kid from Floyd County report for The Roanoke Times in 1965 said “if what you write angers both sides of an issue, you’re doing your job.”
Looks like I’m “mainstream.” I’ve reported for newspapers, magazines, wire services and Internet-based publications over the last five decades.
Today’s journalism, however, is increasingly under fire for abandoning what once was our benchmark: To report the news without partisanship or favor.
Objectivity does not generate profits in a profession too often guided by bottom-line accountants. Fox News, which wears its conservative slant on the news with pride, is the largest satellite news operation. Cable News Network, which attempts to provide news coverage with some balance and objectivity, lags way behind in ratings and ad dollars.
Among on-air pundits, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly command large audiences. MSNBC often fiddles with its mix of “news anchors” as liberal pundits come and go. Keith Olbermann? Unemployed again after multiple failures.
Reporting news without bias or partisanship is difficult, even for the best in the business. Those of us who practice news as a way of life must face personal feelings that can, and do, get in the way.
President Barack Obama, speaking Monday at the annual dinner for the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting in Washington, called on journalists to focus on fact, not divisive sensationalism, is reporting.
“Real people depend on you to uncover the truth,” the President said. “When our elected officials and political campaigns become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis; when it doesn’t matter what is true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make decisions on behalf of future generations.”
He added that America “would be better served if billions of dollars in free media came with serious accountability, especially when the politicians issues workable plans or make promises that they can’t keep and there are reporters here who know they can’t keep them.”
The Toner Award is named for Robin Toner, the first female national political correspondent for the New York Times. She died in 2008.
A news story on Obama’s remarks, written by Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post, noted that “Obama’s remarks often sounded like a lament for a bygone era of fact-based journalism before Twitter, Facebook and even cable television news.”
Lies, damn lies and politics have created a growth industry in journalism: Fact checkers who go through potential scores to fine holes in the truth. After each Presidential debate, news outlets now publish a “fact check” to find the numerous lies by those seeking the Presidency.
“Fabulists,” those who substitute fiction for news, have burned major media outlets: Janet Cooke, whose Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post was returned after it was found to be fiction; Jayson Blair, who made up stories in his apartment while claiming to be on the road covering stories for The New York Times and Stephen Glass, the young writer who fabricated dozens of articles for The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Harpers and Policy Review in the 1990s.
Glass, speaking at a journalism ethics class at Duke University last week, said he has paid back more than $200,000 to four magazines who used his fabricated pieces.
The Toner Award this year went to Alec MacGillis, a former Washington Post reporter who nopw covers politics and government for ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on investigative journalism.
ProPublica is a new media organization whose investigations probe corruption without regard to political party, philosophy or partisan ship.
That’s the way news should be reported.