Last Saturday morning, I sat in front of the TV and turned it to Fox News.
Six hours later, I turned it off, disgusted. In all that time, there hadn’t been a single story about foxes.
Maybe I misunderstood something.
I’m not alone, though; I sometimes receive feedback from readers that, while welcome, reveals misunderstandings about the nuts and bolts of our operation here on Marshall Street.
To some degree, I think, it’s our own fault; we don’t always do a great job of explaining ourselves.
But for fun and edification, let me drop a couple of examples while making it clear that for the purposes of this column, I’m not talking about my section of the paper, where we endlessly opine, but just the straight-ahead news department, where reporters, photographers and news editors work.
A few weeks ago, a reader told me that our recent stories about Sen. Richard Burr’s stock trades “did nothing to convince me that he’s done anything illegal.” To which I say: good. News stories aren’t supposed to persuade; they’re supposed to tell you what happened. They might also provide context, including historical data or the reactions of influential people, but their purpose is to inform, not advocate.
More recently, a reader suggested to me that the Black Lives Matter protests in Winston-Salem might stop if we stopped reporting them. This reminded me of the liberal complaints following the 2016 election that all the media coverage of Donald Trump contributed to his election.
But even assuming that halting the protests would be a worthy goal, the job is still to report, not influence. Some people — protesters and presidents — may be savvy enough to take advantage of the press. But like Batman facing a trap he knows was set by the Joker, news professionals still have to step in and report what’s happening.
One reader recently told me that the entire Associated Press, a network of thousands of reporters and news outlets, had a liberal bias. But as I read news stories that adhere to the facts, I can’t help wondering if the real complaint isn’t that the AP doesn’t have a conservative bias.
When even President Trump’s conservative Supreme Court rules in favor of LGBT rights and corporations release statements in support of Black Lives Matter, I have to think that maybe the media isn’t so much liberal as reflective of mainstream American values.
“These days, it has become commonplace to make scapegoats of ‘the media.’ We blame the media for everything: our divided country, our failed policies, our anxieties,” Len Niehoff, a University of Michigan Law School professor, wrote recently in The Detroit News. “It has become a national pastime and a drumbeat of political rhetoric. And it’s dumb and dangerous.”
“Many factors have contributed to these developments, including inflammatory statements made by political leaders. But our everyday language about ‘the media’ has also stoked the fire. Statements that the media are biased, unreliable or dishonest have become ordinary fare in homes, workplaces and social settings. We say them as if they were self-evidently true.
“On close analysis, however, it turns out that these statements are not just wrong, they are gibberish. They treat ‘the media’ as some sort of monolithic thing, when they are neither monolithic nor a thing. To the contrary, they are so diverse as to make it impossible to generalize about them. And they are made up of human beings.”
Being human, reporters don’t get it right all the time, of course. Just last week, the aforementioned Fox News got in trouble for doctoring photos on its website to make the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle look more dangerous than it really is. And the New York Times was widely criticized for waffling a headline after Vice President Mike Pence urged governors to lie about COVID-19.
But most reporters, carrying their notepads and cameras, are just trying to do good work, keeping the public informed and spelling the names correctly. They do so while facing difficulties that these days include physical attacks from both protesters and police. They’ve got my respect.
But while we have world-class reporting at our fingertips, too many of us turn instead to dubious voices for our “news,” like phony baloney on social media or the outrage merchants on cable TV. Fifty-six percent of people said they were concerned about what was real and what was fake online and 40% said they were concerned about misinformation on social media, according to a recent Reuters report — and well they should be concerned, especially with coronavirus conspiracies floating around out there in the air like germs.
We need conscientious, reliable news professionals to avoid the bluster and give us the facts, even if we don’t like the reports. We need them to tell us what our government is doing. We need them to tell us what’s happening on our streets and around the world. Where would we be without them? Uninformed and misinformed.
But enough about the news for today. I want to check out this thing I heard about called The History Channel. Wish me luck.