A few days ago, a family member delivered a little speech about how the mainstream media — in this case, The New York Times and Washington Post — are full of lies and fabrications, and are centrally controlled by some mysterious force. Hearing this from someone I love and respect nearly broke my heart.
Reader, I was lucky to attend a high school with one of the best journalism programs in the nation. I pulled 12-hour days in a newsroom from age 13 until I graduated at 17, and won national awards for reporting and editorial writing. The summer before I started college, I started work as a beat reporter at the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the University of Arizona’s independent student newspaper, and went on to work full-time as a professional journalist for four years while getting my B.A.
The Trumpeteer and Wildcat were traditional local newspapers: We covered school board elections, swim meets and budget negotiations, and wrote obituaries and police blotter summaries. I reported on everything from the AIDS crisis to earthquakes (Loma Prieta, 1989) and protests (Tonopah Nevada, 1990), and served on the Wildcat’s editorial board for three years.
All of this is by way of saying, I know the profession. I still watch it from afar, with a mix of affection and contempt. Silly and pointless as it may be, I feel driven to defend my old profession.
Here are some of the complaints I hear about the so-called mainstream media:
- Reporters are biased.
- Newspapers routinely make up stories, and print lies, fabrications and fictions.
- The owner or publisher dictates the content.
- Reporters are part of an out-of-touch coastal elite.
- Newspapers use generic language that’s dictated by a central authority to refer to people and institutions. This is part of a larger conspiracy about what can and cannot be said.
Fruitless though it may be, I will take these objections one by one, starting with bias.
It’s true that individual reporters have bias. All human beings do. All reporters are trained to be aware of their personal bias, and to actively counter it in their reporting and writing. There are multiple, built-in layers to reduce the effect of personal and institutional bias in reporting. Prior to publication, even routine articles are reviewed by a series of editors; large newspapers employ fact-checkers, who walk through every factual assertion and review the supporting documentation and interviews. The process is far from perfect, but it is rigorous and disciplined. The fact that something is imperfect doesn’t mean it’s corrupt and worthless — it means that it’s carried out by fallible human beings facing daily deadlines.
Along these lines, I assure you that newspapers don’t just print whatever-the-fuck. Rigorous standards exist about sourcing — background, off the record, unnamed — and major stories are reported, debated and edited for weeks or months prior to publication. Major news stories rely, not just on interviews, but on extensive documentary evidence. It’s true that occasionally reporters fabricate quotes or sources. When they’re caught, they’re fired and driven from the profession, and the stories in question are corrected or retracted. (Curiously, this happened to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.) News stories are not a single person’s whim or idea or dream. They’re the product of Herculean labor by dozens of hard-working, trained professionals.
As for #3, it makes me tremble with frustration. The division between news and editorial content, and between the newsroom and business office, is sacred to journalists. It’s the single, core belief that drives what they do. A newspaper’s editorial slant — conservative or liberal — must not affect how the news is reported, and advertisers or powerful sources cannot drive content. Journalists will strike or resign before they will submit to orders from an owner or publisher. I can’t emphasize this enough. There are examples of stories being killed to protect the powerful — Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill tells precisely this tale — but no reputable news outlet will submit to having business interests determine editorial content.
Far from being an out-of-touch elite, reporters are overwhelmingly working class by background and pay. For every anchorman who makes big bank, there are thousands of reporters who make a third of what I do as an engineer, and who are subject to constant layoffs, buyouts and consolidations. They struggle to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. They work massive overtime, and pay the price in divorce and ill health.
If you imagine that journalists make their living mingling at Georgetown cocktail parties, let me disabuse you of that notion. I’ve frozen my ass off in a tent outside a military base, rummaged through dumpsters, spent the night in a homeless shelter, gotten a bloody nose at a punk concert, and received a death threat. As a student journalist, I’ve worked 20 hours straight, gone to class, and started prepping the next day’s paper without sleep or a change of clothes. More to the point, reporters are beaten and arrested while covering protests; they’re injured, killed and kidnapped in war zones.
The last item is one I’ve been hearing more and more. It was first raised by a family member, and honestly, it still baffles me. Here’s what I think is happening. All newspapers have a stylebook to ensure consistency and reduce bias. Style books dictate simple matters of grammar and punctuation. They also determine how people are referenced (the Times’ charming habit of calling me “Dr. Thompson” on second reference rather than simply “Thompson,” as the Associated Press prefers), and provide guidance about how to avoid imprecise or ideologically loaded terms. An example would be referring to members of the military by their branch of service and rank instead of calling them a “warfighter.”
As you can imagine, this guidance is fiercely contested, and shifts over time; at times it may seem to bow to so-called political correctness. For example, both the Times and Post allow sources to choose their pronouns. When quoting a trans man, both papers will use the source’s preferred name (Alex rather than Jessica), even if it differs from his legal name. Whether such conventions are pernicious depends on your perspective. As a fan of comedian Jon Stewart, I may think that the 45th President of the United States is best addressed as “Fuckface von Clownstick.” The news columns of any reputable paper will call him Donald J. Trump, as he prefers, and will follow the usual standards for his title and office. The resulting compromise will satisfy neither side, which neatly summarizes the day-to-day lot of the professional journalist.
A news service is reputable, not because it favors my side or parrots a party line, but because it adheres to professional journalistic standards and processes. The result is necessarily partial and imperfect, but it’s indispensable to a functioning democracy. Anyone who suggests otherwise is ignorant, corrupt, or both.
I’ll end by quoting a passage that has become more poignant and sickening with the current assault on professional standards. It’s long — I hope you’ll bear with me:
[The bourgeoisie] has left remaining no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest and callous “cash payment.” It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefensible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — free trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers….
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones…. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face his real conditions of life, and his mutual relations with a sober eye.
–Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848
The Manifesto is written with precision and philosophical rigor; alas, I can’t to justice to the full sweep of their argument here. I’ve brought in this snippet because I know of no better description of workers’ condition today. One pain among many is the active effort to hollow out, not just journalism, but all professions, and to raise up crowd wisdom in its place. The military, intelligence, diplomacy and academia have all been attacked. Naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation is the lot of warehouse workers, hairdressers and bartenders alike.
I don’t have the answer, any more than Marx and Engels did. I will point out, as they did, that capital strips away illusion and demands endless revolution. This comes at a human cost; it also offers an opportunity.
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