Mainstream Journalism Can’t Handle the Truth

Image for post
Image for post

Soon-to-be former Associate Editor of The State (Columbia, SC), Cindi Ross Scoppe noted in her good-bye column:

Newspapers the nation over are making a rapid transition into an all-digital future, and right now, there’s not a huge market online for fact-based opinion journalism, particularly when it isn’t extreme, or at least aligned with one side in our culture wars. People like me the nation over are trying to find ways to maintain their integrity, and their pragmatism, while creating a stronger following, and I wish them nothing but the best with this. Unfortunately, the next round of layoffs came too soon for me.

Mainstream journalism, notably the traditional newspaper, is in rapid decline. Scoppe’s departure is yet one more example of the actual human cost of media contracting.

Having placed a number of Op-Eds with The State, I have interacted with Scoppe for many years. On balance, I would place her in a small percentage of journalists about whom I am mostly positive, keeping in mind that I regularly criticize both mainstream journalism broadly and edujournalism narrowly as deeply flawed.

I have, in fact, stated bluntly that even so-called good journalists and good journalism leave a great deal to be desired. Journalists remain steadfast in their commitment to both-sides journalism, and the entire media field/industry is every day more deeply entrenched in press-release journalism out of necessity.

These on-going contractions require fewer and fewer journalists to do more and more. Journalists as generalists (their expertise is journalism, lacking content expertise in the topics they cover), then, simply try to keep their heads above water even when they are faced with a rising tide they have never navigated before.

I paused at Scoppe’s “[p]eople like me the nation over are trying to find ways to maintain their integrity, and their pragmatism.” I am deeply torn between recognizing Scoppe as a very good journalist with genuinely good intentions (in my opinion) and also being able to see that her “pragmatism” (and journalistic code that includes both-sides reporting and a naive pledge “to express my political opinions, with no allegiance to any person or political philosophy,” or seek ways not to be political) more often than not trumped that integrity.

Let me give an example that I think reflects the much larger problem in journalism and news reporting across the U.S.

Scoppe and The State have remained supporters of current South Carolina governor Henry McMaster, calling him the best candidate and even praising him for having integrity.

Yet, McMaster is a strong Trump ally and a shameless NRA candidate. In short, McMaster isn’t a candidate with integrity. His partisan politics are an affront to the high percentage of black and brown citizens of SC as well as to the large percentage of the state that lives in mostly ignored poverty.

This state-level example is not much different than The New York Timesremaining unwilling (unable?) to call Trump and his administration liars. The so-called newspaper of record is mostly concerned about White House access.

The truth that mainstream journalism cannot handle is that journalism is its own worst enemy. Journalists are trained to avoid taking ethical stands, to refuse to make evidence-based decisions about credibility and validity.

Mainstream media are complicit in how the U.S. has become a political joke throughout the world.

Chris Cuomo, for example, on CNN plays the role of “journalist holding the administration’s feet to the fire,” but continues to give Kellyanne Conway airtime.

The ugly truth that mainstream journalism cannot handle is that there is no journalism — only theater.

The U.S. has a faux-billionaire reality-TV star as president. The media created him and the media are playing right along to keep this sinking shipafloat.

Like universal public education (which journalists have covered badly for more than a century and a half), the free press is essential to a free people.

Like universal public education, the free press is mostly a deeply flawed — and failing — experiment in democracy since both are deeply tainted by the free market.

However, universal public education and the free press are not the problem. We have failed them; they haven’t failed us.

Education and journalism are both inherently political. Yet formal schooling and the mainstream media function with false expectations that teachers and journalists remain apolitical.

Education and journalism are both inherently ethical pursuits. Yet formal schooling and the mainstream media function with false expectations that teachers and journalists skirt moral and ethical pronouncements.

One of the greatest risks teachers and journalists can take that can directly threaten their careers is to be activists, the highest form of political and ethical behavior.

The activist is one who seeks to garner power to confront the entrenched power of the status quo in the pursuit of change, change that bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

Many teachers (and professors) and journalists are in separate boats that are both none the less sinking.

And the harsh truth is that they have created the holes themselves by conforming to the traditional expectations that teachers and journalists simply allow the world to continue as it is.

Don’t be political and surely don’t take any ethical stand in your roles as teachers and journalists.

Almost daily, I see The New York Times begging for subscriptions to keep journalism alive while they refuse to call a lie “a lie.” And while their Op-Ed page devolves more and more into something many of us find hard to distinguish from The Onion.

Maybe journalism deserves to be razed since it can’t stop itself from throwing gasoline on the dumpster fire that is U.S. politics and disaster capitalism.

Maybe we must let this all burn to the ground and hope for a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a new version of a critical free press that can handle the truth.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store