COMMENTARY

Did the Media Start the Fire?

Jaci Clement CEO & Executive Director, Fair Media Council

Jaci Clement

photo by Bob Giglione

Ever have one of those weeks when you don’t recognize your own country in the news? Yeah, me too.

The headlines show an America torn apart, crippled by a pandemic, and set ablaze over racial injustice. Everyone’s pointing fingers, few are taking responsibility. And the message that’s resonating above the din is simply this: Blame the media.

List of sins

OK, let’s go with that for a bit.

Are there problems with America’s media? Absolutely. Among its many sins of the moment — and in no particular order: agenda-driven corporate owners, politically driven talking heads, reporters lacking training, writers lacking talent, editors lacking souls. All of whom work hard to put out stories devoid of substance and perspective in order to meet deadlines that no longer serve a purpose in today’s always-on world.  (This system, which relies on heavily-flawed humans reporting on the acts of a heavily-flawed humanity, actually gives me a bit of comfort. I know those mass conspiracies the public often accuses the media of could never actually be carried out. It would require too much in the way of precision and skill.)

Here’s the thing: Not much about news has changed since 1690 when the first multipage newspaper was introduced in Boston, which was known as the Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick. Really, the only big deal to happen since then is a change in how the news is delivered, from print to radio to television to cable to digital. But these last two steps were doozies, and it’s pretty much when news left the bulk of America behind. (If you think partisan politics in media is something new, look into the history of America’s earliest newspapers.) 

Expanding menu

To this day, America seems to be largely under the impression there is but one type of news: objective. The truth is, many different flavors have been added to the ever-expanding news menu over the years, partly due to those changes in delivery formats and the need to fill time, and partly due to public consensus. There has always been, and there continues to be, a rich history of objective news — true news, if you will — available to the public. And there always have been opinions and commentaries offered by rabble-rousers, ingrates and attention seekers. It’s just that today we need to sort it all out, classify it, label it and try to remember where we put it. As soon as we accomplish these tasks, it changes again. 

What today’s news shows us, beyond what’s in the headlines, is the ever-widening knowledge gap between what the news actually does, and what Americans think it does. In a country built upon freedom of the press, we have to ask if we have arrived at yet another breaking point in our history. 

America is burning. Public distrust of the media adds fuel to the flames. When the smoke clears, what do we want to be left with? 

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