By Mark Lavie
And here’s the other headline we need to see to fix journalism:
Newspapers rebuild wall between news, opinion
These are critical first steps toward winning back our credibility and restoring our influence with the public.
This defines the crisis: We’ve lost our purpose. We’ve started rooting for the side we choose as the “good guys” and boosting “our side” instead of communicating with everybody, as we are supposed to.
It shows how journalists have been sucked into the pattern of anti-social media—click bait, clicks, malicious Twitter gibberish, trending, and all the rest. This anti-social media is especially anti-journalism, yet our profession has embraced it, opting to play in a game it can’t possibly win. The other team, unconcerned with accuracy or truth, will always beat us.
Now we are tasked with covering an administration that considers us the enemy. So far we have failed. Among our errors—chasing the little lies and little stories fed to us by officials who benefit from distracting us from important developments, blathering on and on about how horrible the administration is, and dividing ourselves into camps in order to feed our selected audiences what they want.
That isn’t journalism. We must be communicators, analysts—not advocates, not cheering for our home team.
We saw a senior official invent a massacre on live television and get away with it. I imagine that Chris Matthews is still kicking himself all over the room for not catching Kellyanne Conway’s reference to the “Bowling Green Massacre” that never happened. But it’s too much to ask. Even an anchor as skilled as Matthews can’t fact-check on the fly.
But here’s the real problem: It wouldn’t matter if he had. Fact-checking is a step too late. Once the lie is out there, it gets traction. And if the lie gets out there by way of a credible mainstream media outlet like MSNBC, it can’t be put back in the bottle. Too many people will believe it, some of them because the news media debunked it. That’s today’s reality.
So our role must be to keep it from getting out there in the first place. That means recording interviews and fact-checking them before broadcast.
In response to this, I’ve already been told by a network TV news veteran that live interviews are the bread and butter of the industry. I understand that this won’t change overnight.
So how about if one network tries out the “no live interviews” format, applies it across the board, promotes it as a step toward responsible journalism, and checks what happens with its viewership? I’m assuming, maybe hoping, that a significant bloc of serious viewers would welcome it.
When it comes to defining our role, my jaw drops over the debate about whether journalists should be allowed or even encouraged to express their political views in public now. I’ve heard serious journalists say that they should do that, so that their audience can better assess their reporting.
Total nonsense. If journalists identify as progressive, then conservatives will never read another word they write. And vice versa. That’s the world we live in. If before it was a rule to leave your political views at your door whenever you go out, today it must be an ironclad, no-exceptions axiom. If you really feel you have to act out your role, whether right or left or black or brown or LGBTQ or whatever, then go be an activist and get out of journalism. The two don’t mix.
Our job was never to advocate for a political view, to take the side of the underdog, to speculate without foundation. It always was, and is, to present the facts and add impartial analysis, background, and context to allow citizens to make up their minds on vital issues.
As I’ve written before, I’m proud of the fact that a friend who has been reading my articles for years observed that he doesn’t know whether I’m on the right or the left.
That’s the template for regaining the trust of readers and viewers who believe, often correctly, that we are “liberals” (when did that become a curse word?) who are slanting the news toward our beliefs.
The trend is in the wrong direction. The newspaper that bragged, “All the news that’s fit to print,” now prints an opinion column on the front page of its international edition. The first one was typical Trump-bashing that broke no new ground but recast all the bitterness in pseudo-humorous form, aimed at the “true believers.” That appears to be the goal of the New York Times and others—carving out a niche instead of informing and explaining.
So here’s the story under the second headline: Not only must we restore the wall between the news pages and the editorial pages; but also, we must do away with editorials altogether. Op-ed pages are fine and necessary, but the time has passed when owners of newspapers, radio stations and TV stations get to expound on their political views just because they own the building.
That includes endorsing candidates. Today, nothing trashes credibility more than telling readers, listeners, and viewers where we stand politically. A century or two ago, perhaps voters needed the guidance of their local newspapers. Today they don’t need it, don’t want it, and draw damaging conclusions from it.
Unbelievable as this might sound in this new reality of instant news and constant deadlines—I actually made a successful career as a North American network radio reporter in the Mideast with the slogan, “I might not be first, but I’ll be right.” In the last century, my networks were willing to wait until I read the whole report, for example, instead of just the table of contents, before going on the air. That protected me, and my networks, from any number of gross reporting errors made by my competitors.
Working according to that slogan is impossible today. Even print reporters are required to tweet out their stories before they’re finished reporting them. There are two assumptions here. The important one in the eyes of the home office is that whoever gets out there first with the story “owns” it and will get the following, the clicks, as it develops.
The second is that even if the original tweet is wrong, well, we’ll fix it later, no harm, no foul. Anyone who has studied half an hour of psychology and knows the power of first impressions would recognize the absurdity of that reasoning. Likewise, that applies to lies in live interviews.
Here’s what’s at stake.
In past decades, voters agreed on the facts but disagreed over what to do with them. That’s a legitimate matter of ideological differences. Today we do not agree on the facts. Fake news, ideological reporting and tendentious editing have all contributed to this dangerous situation.
Make no mistake, as a certain former president liked to say. If we do not agree on the facts, we cannot have a meaningful debate over issues. If we do not have a meaningful debate over issues, we cannot have democracy. Instead, we get campaigns based on bogus charges, character assassination, and made-up “truths.”
This is the moment where journalism must be prepared to step in and provide the information and analysis that define its role in a democracy. Journalism must get off the field of that game it cannot win.
Foreign correspondent Mark Lavie has been covering Israel and the Mideast since 1972. His book, “Broken Spring,” explains the failure of the Arab revolution.