This week, hundreds of newspapers across the nation will be running editorials in response to anti-press sentiments expressed by our President.
But these sentiments are not our President’s alone. I have heard negative opinions of the press for many years, with increasing contempt and disparagement in recent years from both the far-right and the far-left. I refer to sentiments not read, but expressed to me by people I know. People I care about. People who were stunned when I stopped them to remind them that I am a member of the press. It was often followed by a quick, “I didn’t mean you,” before they returned to their invective. And return they did without stopping to factor in the respect they have shown my work in the past and present. Caught up in their script of “fake news” and an “untrustworthy press,” they never stopped to factor in that the broad brush they painted with conflicted with direct experiences of their own. It allowed for no gray areas or exceptions, no subtlety or clarification.
The situation, in my opinion, is reflective of a broader cultural trend. Intolerance and a rejection of arbitration of policies based in fact is overriding creation of the middle ground.
There are sociological studies aplenty that have demonstrated, irrespective of ideologies, people with strong opinions are inclined to cling more tenaciously to their beliefs when faced with information that contradicts those beliefs. It appears to be an innate reaction in humans. Yet culture, those mass ideals we embrace as the larger group, helps us modify the excesses of our individual natures. Every culture promotes strictures against greed, violence, theft, and such.
Growing up, it was stressed to me in school, by my family, and even in television programming, that America is what it is because it’s made up of all these diverse views that have worked together as often as against. Certainly, it’s an idealist vision. We have been struggling with inequalities from long before the first colonialists stepped foot on the shores of America. It’s been a piecemeal process of slow rectification as new problems arise.
I cannot offer a solution to our woes. It will take setting down our defenses and listening to each other to come up with a resolution of any woe we experience as a society. But I do think we can use this moment to stop name calling, blaming, or disparaging and instead focus on how we increase our accountability.
As an industry, we in journalism can use this as an opportunity to look critically at how broadcast journalism, the hype of the 24/7 news cycle, consolidation of ownership, reductions in news staff, and other myriad changes in the industry may be limiting coverage. I feel fairly certain the presentation of opinion commentary as news has been detrimental to the practice of discourse, not to mention muddying the waters between presentation of factual reporting and opinion for viewers.
The nature of power is such that it must be constantly examined and held in check or it corrupts our institutions. When I listen to people attacking the news, I hear two voices, those who feel disempowered and those who seek to harness the collective power they represent. Whatever we may feel about the shortcomings of the media overall, they have been instrumental throughout our history by striving to hold up a light to the workings of power, that the people may harness the leaders of our institutions rather than our leaders harness the people.
We are still trying to do so.
So, please, hold us accountable. We need to own when we make mistakes and we need to be clear when we offer reporting, analysis, or opinion. But don’t dismiss us when you simply disagree with the facts we present.
Discourse will carry all of us far. Dismissal - of facts, of each other, of our shared values - will undo us all.
Erin Martin, Editor