Bad thoughts about the media


Chuck Doswell

Created: 15 October 2002. Updated: 16 October 2002. Fixed some glitches and made some minor revisions.

I offer this bit of commentary about the media ... print, TV, and radio. If you're so inclined, you can talk to me about these remarks at

NOTE: A wonderful essay on this topic by Stephen Schneider has appeared in the November-December issue of American Scientist (vol. 90, no. 6). His succinct and well-written commentary is in the "Macroscope" section on pp. 496-498.


The media can also be thought of as "the press" ... they are the inheritors of the traditional "freedom of the press" guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

-- 1st Amendment, Bill of Rights ... The Constitution of the United States of America

This amendment has been given various interpretations during the history of the United States, but that's not really the subject of this essay. Although the media have inherited this long and proud tradition, it's my belief that they have failed widely to live up to the obligations implied in the 1st Amendment. The battles by the media (or "the press") to protect their rights have, in my opinion, resulted in the erosion of the right of free speech guaranteed to the citizens. I believe that the protection of free speech for the citizens was the primary goal of this amendment when it was written into the U. S. Constitution as the first of the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The inclusion of freedom of the press and the prevention of the establishment of a state-supported religion were merely part of the means to the primary end of giving the citizens the right to free expression. It was recognized that the establishment of a state religion would be detrimental to free speech, as would the restriction of expression in a free press. In fact, the press was an important tool by which the American revolution came about, so it is reasonable that the framers of the U. S. Constitution would be concerned to maintain the integrity of the press.

Hence, it seems that the press have been instrumental in the maintenance of our freedom of speech (as well as other freedoms). I say "seems" because appearances can be deceptive, especially given the evolution of our society since the days of the American Revolution. Times most definitely have changed in 200+ years, and I believe the media have been given a responsibility they have failed to live up to, and which is increasingly a negative force in today's world of the Internet and the World-Wide Web.

What makes me feel this way about the media? In what follows, I'll try to explain my position. It's derived from my experience with the press in my role as an "expert" about severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.1 It also is drawn from my time as a high school journalist, when I was first introduced to the role of the "reporter" and how I came to understand that role, versus how I see it in today's world.

NOTE: Since the general tenor of this is going to be negative, I should say here that there still are a few within the media who have integrity and honesty, and who may not fit the generalities I'm offering. If the shoe doesn't fit, I will not make anyone wear it. Even in a desert, a few creatures survive.


Journalism and reportage

Being a "reporter" is the primary role for a journalist ... it's the "front line" task of the journalism and the press. In principle, a reporter is supposed to maintain a strict objectivity. In the past, most reporters for newspapers were anonymous ... a news story was supposed to be objective and without bias, so the person doing the report was, in principle, irrelevant. Of course, successful reporting in the eyes of the editor might lead to a special status for the privileged few reporters - the assignment of a "by" line. Achievement of a "byline" (eventually, it became its own word) meant that the story was "by" a named person, not just the anonymous reporting staff of the medium (generally, a newspaper).2 Otherwise, news was conveyed by the objective, anonymous reporting staff.

This naturally led to the growth in fame of some reporters, and that fame for the select few was magnified, first by radio and then television. Everyone is familiar with reporters nowadays ... they are often seen on TV and so have names, voices, and faces. In fact, they can be as famous as the people they interview. Of this privileged few, an even smaller portion is given the opportunity to shed the pose of objectivity ... their opinions can be expressed, rather than simply "reporting" the news, they can offer commentary. They have achieved the status of "columnists" (or "commentators" on TV and radio) ... that is, they are not simply objective reporters of the news. These special few become full-fledged celebrities in their own right. They can attempt to shape public opinion, and so are not limited to the mere expression of their own opinion.

Anyone who is a news junkie knows who the news celebrities of their era are ... their names are household words3 and they can have international fame. In the case of TV and, to a lesser extent, radio, these "commentators" are headliners. Many media commentators now have little or no journalism in their backgrounds at all. They rise up to fame and fortune by virtue of their own overriding ambition. Such media figures can range from religious leaders, to political spokespersons, to sports commentators, and demagogues of all sorts ... ready access to the media makes their role in today's world enormous and they become fixtures in the press. Anything they have to say is "newsworthy." They are every bit as important as the newsmakers that ordinary reporters interview to provide us with the routine "news" - that purports to keep us informed.

To a great extent, the reporters and commentators must necessarily be responsive to their management (editors and others) and especially to the owner of the medium. There can be an uneasy relationship between the leaders of the media and their "owners." Such stars give their medium the following that allows that medium to make money (primarily through charging for advertising). It's known that popular reporters and commentators help to deliver the audience ("eyeballs") that advertisers crave and are willing to pay dearly to reach. Of course, sometimes such popular reporters commit various blunders ... perhaps one intemperate remark or careless act can ruin a career, but often an appropriate apology is enough to get back in good graces. If such a "reporter" takes a stand contrary to the wishes of the medium's management or (God forbid!) one that upsets the advertisers, however, even that popularity of their public persona may not be enough to mollify the situation. Money talks ... and bullshit walks.

Journalism, when I considered it as a career in high school, struck me at the time as wonderfully idealistic. The anonymous, objective reportage that was taught to me was consistent with my youthful belief in the value of honesty and integrity. Curiously, I was given a column as a sports reporter on my high school paper and promptly ran afoul of the school administration with an expression of my opinion as a sports columnist. Chastised, I was forced to retreat before the indignation of the high school and publish a retraction of my supposedly intemperate remarks or I would have been unable to continue. This experience left me with a profound mistrust of the media. Essentially, the media reflect the prejudices and opinions of the "owners" and their staff. They are not necessarily committed to truth, justice, and the American principles of freedom of speech, unless those ideals happen not to conflict with the goals of the owners of the media!


Muck-raking and Sensationalism

It's desirable for the media to maintain the illusion that they are protecting the rights of the "ordinary" citizens ... that is, the people who "subscribe" to the media. Hence, they make a big deal out of stories that seem to pit their reporters and commentators against those who would abuse the public for the sake of power, money, prestige, and glory. Of course, at the same time, the reporters and commentators are the recipients of power, money, prestige, and glory during their reportage about the abuses of others. Many in the American public have grown disillusioned with the media, for the simple reason that they can see the media failing to represent their views adequately (if at all!). This failure to represent a particular segment provides demagogues with an opportunity. Since a large segment of the American public currently sees the media as too liberal, this means that there has been a rapid growth in those willing to take up the so-called "conservative" viewpoint -- opportunists like Rush Limbaugh. Suddenly, the media boast conservative reporters and columnists everywhere ...

In this simple sense, of course, it can be argued that the media have responded to a perceived need on behalf of the public. In my disillusioned view, I see this as mere pandering to the politics of the moment, with an associated erosion of objectivity in reporting. Everyone seems to have a viewpoint, rather than to be committed to objectivity. Appealing to special interests means income, fame, and a big market share.

The popularity of muck-raking reporters ... I choose not to name names, but the networks are full of such ... is undeniable. Even entertainment show hosts wear this mantle, as well as reporters and commentators. In an effort to take on the appearance of exposing crime and injustice, the media comb the planet looking for opportunities to make someone look evil ... and, of course, to make their reporting and themselves look angelic, in the process. At least at the national level, programs like "60 Minutes" are reasonably effective at what they're trying to do: make themselves look good at someone's expense (the "evil-doers" they expose). At the local level, such efforts are usually pitiful caricatures at muck-raking. I guess reporters see themselves as Woodward and Bernstein4 in "All the President's Men" - but movies are not reality. With all this exposure of evil, shouldn't we be free of it by now? But more of it seems to pop up to replace the chastised devils already exposed. Very real problems and important issues remain unrecognized and unheeded until someone brings the full glare of the media to bear. Crimes and injustices occur every day that fail to make the cut for a big-time show like "60 Minutes" and may not even catch the attention of the local muck-rakers. If important problems and issues are covered, it's done in the standard superficial way the media all seem to use ... more on this below

In the old days, muck-raking was considered "yellow journalism" ... essentially, a form of sensationalism in reporting. There was a time when digging up dirt about public figures was not viewed as something that should be considered a positive good. Today, it has become a national and international pastime for many. The rise of paparazzi and the sensationalist tabloids seems to suggest that yellow journalism has become more than acceptable ... it's become big business that most media choose to exploit shamelessly, even as they look down their noses at the tabloids (which exist among all media, not just newspapers!). At least the tabloids are honestly sleazy and shamelessly exploitive of sensationalism and titillation. The supposedly non-tabloid media do many of the same things, but pretend they are being objective and honest. Whenever really bad things are exposed, it is now often hard to tell where the lies and distortions end and the truth begins. Really bad people offer the same denials as those innocently accused for the sake of the careers of the muck-rakers. How might readers, listeners, and viewers able to tell the difference? Accusations are as good as convictions in the media ... never mind about constitutional assurances of presumed innocence until guilt is proven in court. Once the story is out, the damage is mostly permanent, whatever the truth might eventually turn out to be.


Truth in reporting

Many of us are accustomed to accepting the basic truth in what we read, view, and hear over the media. It would seem that truth and objectivity should result in trustworthy reportage. If they can say it on TV or print it in a newspaper, it must be true, right? Consider your own experiences ... it's inevitable that when we know something about an event that is reported in the media, the stories as reported are nearly always distorted: outright falsehoods abound, "sound bites" are usually taken out of context, misquotations are disturbingly common, and so on. If you find that you can't believe what you read, hear or see in the few cases you do know something about the event being reported, is it not logical to be distrustful of everything you encounter in the media, especially in cases where you don't know very much about the subject?

In my encounters with the media as an "expert" interviewee, I constantly find myself frustrated because the reporters I deal with are in charge of the interview. They typically come in with some preconceived notion of how to write the story ... either on their own or at the command of their editors ... and that agenda determines the questions they ask. They are trying to get me to give them the answers they want to write the story as they have already determined it to be. They want a soundbite that fits their preconceived notions. I'm merely being used as an expert to back up their story. Usually, they try to make me out to be more "famous" than I really am, just to lend credence to their story. I've learned by my own experience to be careful not to be upset with interviews of people I know when they seem to be saying things that are silly, or wrong, or even outrageous. Often, when I talk with them later, it turns out they were victimized in the same ways that I have.

It's easy to see why politicians and other famous people like actors, musicians, and sports stars dislike the media so much. The reporters intrude on your life according to their whims and schedule, they reduce a 2-hour interview to a 5-second soundbite, and act like they're doing you a favor! I had some media person actually tell me once how he was going to make me "famous" by putting me on national TV (after the May 3rd tornado) and was apparently dumbfounded when that didn't impress me.

As an interviewee, I find myself frustrated with the stupidity and irrelevance of most of their questions. I would rather a reporter not have a preconceived notion of what the story should be about ... the story should emerge out of interviews and "research" into the story. It should not be predetermined! Doing a proper job of reporting should involve extensive research and carefully-done interviews. What's being done today in most cases is not objective reportage ... it often takes a sensationalist turn, focusing on essentially irrelevant aspects of the story instead of the main substance.

It also bothers me that controversies are represented as polar opposites ... interviewees are selected who have so little in common, they can't even have a rational argument. What passes for objectivity and "balanced" reporting is simply the presentation of opposing, polarized points of view, usually with no hint of the possibility of a middle ground. Even on such well-respected programs as those offered by PBS, this sort of superficial presentation of polarized opposites is what passes for a discussion. No one who is not at one extreme or the other is even invited to speak. Who learns anything of value from such a presentation? Usually, the polar extremes of some issue are not at all representative of the majority of people who might actually have something to say, but putting such an "argument" on is what currently passes for "balanced" reporting.

Some reporters have confided to me that their readers (or listeners, or viewers) are too stupid to understand anything that lasts beyond a 5-second "soundbite" or a one-sentence paragraph. What arrogance! To hold your public in contempt at the same time you pretend to serve them!! This also seems to me to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we never give the public anything more than an "MTV"-like presentation, with constantly changing images and rapid-fire "dialog" then that is what they come to expect, naturally. If we take the time to explore a story carefully, deeply, and honestly, the public might react positively. Who knows? No one will, if we don't make an effort to give the public anything more than superficiality!

It also seems that we must intrude in people's lives, sticking a microphone in the face of a grieving parent who has just lost a child, for instance, just to ask "How do you feel about losing your child?" Is this necessary? Is this something the public needs to know? Is this information somehow important to our functioning as citizens? It seems like cynical sensationalism, pure and simple ... it has nothing to do with truth and objectivity. Rather, it is using people's emotions to capture their attention ... to put eyeballs in front of the sponsor's adverts.


Who is allowed to speak?

I find it darkly amusing that the media have taken it upon themselves to crusade against the Web and the Internet, because there is no "regulation" of the content on the Internet. Of course, this crusade is full of hypocrisy and self-delusion. Who really controls the content of the media? The media themselves do, of course! They decide what is news and what is not. They decide who is important enough to be offered an opportunity to express themselves, and who is not so important. They decide what is truth and what is falsehood, and they arrogate for themselves the role of protector of the rights of the public, when they often are trampling on those very rights through the exclusion of the vast majority of the public from participation in the dialog.

Sure, print media like newspapers often have a "letters to the editor" section that ostensibly permits anyone to voice their opinion. But they themselves decide whose expressions of opinion are going to be published and they reserve the right to "edit" those opinions to whatever extent they wish. Once in a while, someone gets a microphone stuck in their face, more or less by accident ... and many times all they can say is "Hi, Mom!" because they're stupefied by the chance to be on TV (or whatever).

Yes, the Internet is a wild, free place, full of both honest and dishonest material ... at present, there's no way to guarantee the truth or falsity of what one finds on the Internet. However, given that most of what you're given by the supposedly honest and objective media is full of distortions, lies, and half-truths, can you trust the media to decide for you what is right and what is wrong? I don't think so! With all the apparent regulation of the media, can you trust them to give you truth? Not even in your dreams! In any case, if you want the truth, you are going to have to work to decide for yourself what is truth. No one source can be trusted to dispense only the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Whatever else might be wrong with the Web, at least everyone has an equal chance to be heard! If you have Web access, the chances are you also have the opportunity to create your own Web pages. You can express yourself to your heart's content, and anyone wishing to know your opinion can consult those pages. No one is empowered to select just who can and cannot post things on the Internet. No one says "You can't say that!" if you can buy your own Internet service. You can be "heard," although you may not be "famous" or even "controversial" enough to command attention from the media.

Therefore, I believe the Web is the current true inheritor of the tradition of free speech expressed in the First Amendment. The media have become a part of the problem, actually abridging the freedom of expression through the selection of who gets to speak - they're not a significant part of the solution. They have a vested interest in maintaining their position of power over who gets to speak and who does not ... and they sell their readers, listeners, and viewers to the highest bidders. To date, the Web has not yet been sold out to the media. It is a powerful influence and the media generally don't like its free spirit. They want it "regulated" so they can continue their stranglehold on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.


So what's the point?

I'm not sure I have many conclusions I can draw from this rant. I know that I'm mostly disillusioned and distrustful of the media. For a time in my life, I was a news junkie, but I've kicked the habit, for the most part. What passes for news is mostly stuff I don't think I need to know and mostly don't care to hear ... an outpouring of senseless violence, disasters of all sorts, purported violations of trust by public figures, terrorism, political posturing, stock market swings, drug addiction, corporate greed and corruption ... a daily helping of garbage, for the most part. Plus a vast outpouring of advertising that underwrites all of this negativity. Oh, boy! In exchange for filling up my head with a load of bullshit, I have to listen to a roughly equal dose of advertising! What a deal!!

The real world that I experience day in and day out is not like that at all. It's mostly people going about their lives, and most of them are pretty fine people (albeit with flaws, which only makes them human), trying their best to do the right thing and to accomplish something with their lives. Occasionally some bad things do happen, but if you go by what you read and see, there are insane criminals lurking everywhere! A steady diet of media garbage might be doing us more harm than good ... being informed of everything bad is not necessarily making my real life any better.

I'm not advocating that we stick our heads into the sand and just pretend that all is grand, either. What we really need: (a) nonsuperficial, thought-stimulating presentation of issues that we confront as a society, and (b) the information that could provide us with help in making tough decisions (as modern human beings in a complicated technological world) about those issues. What we get is sensationalist crap that distracts us from the important things that confront our society, or superficial junk that neither informs nor helps us with making decisions.

Another major part of our problem with this torrent of crap is that we no longer know whom we can trust to tell the truth. The very real challenges we confront in our society are being buried in an avalanche of trivia and misinformation. Important real problems seem insurmountable because no one seems to know very much or care about many of them. The media want to report things that will appeal to the lowest emotional and intellectual levels, to attract the largest possible audiences, to sell the most advertising.

I think our only hope is to ignore the media, and to actively distrust what we see and read as much as possible. Don't let the media do our thinking for us. Being informed is not directly related to how much TV we watch, and how many newspapers we read ... real, useful knowledge is not gained easily and certainly not in 5-second soundbites!

1 This is the sort of role that Stephen Schneider has been involved with that prompted his thoughtful essay. I say "expert" in quotes because I don't like the term ... if I have learned something from 30 years of scientific work, it is that no one is truly an expert. We're simply being called that by the media to lend credence to their stories.

2 In my brief flirtation with the press in high school, I was given a byline in my reporting of sports for my high school to a suburban syndicate of newspapers, so I came to understand that this was an honor reserved for a few successful reporters.

3 For instance: Mike Wallace, Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, etc., etc.

4 Or perhaps as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman!