"Americans are wonderfully courteous to strangers, yet indiscriminately shoot kids in schools. They believe they are masters of the world, yet know nothing about what goes on outside their shores. They are people who believe the world stretches from California to Boston and everything outside is the bit they have to bomb to keep the price of oil down. Only one in five Americans hold a passport and the only foreign stories that make their news are floods, famine, and wars, because it makes them feel good to be an American. Feeling good to be American is what they live for. " - Brian Reade, London columnist
During my overly long and mediocre career as a TV news reporter, I was given to the occasional rant about the myth of objectivity. The idea that any human can be objective about observational information is silly. We process and analyze and infer based upon what we see and hear and touch and smell, and then, no matter how hard we resist, we end up reaching conclusions. Humans are not designed to sustain objectivity when we are feeling and sensing and learning from what we are experiencing.
Journalists cling to this notion of objectivity as if it were a kind of talisman that protects them from their biases. They simply are not objective because they are the product of their backgrounds, which empirically frames their reactions, and ultimately, opinions. A reporter who came from a family in Highland Park in Dallas will have to try very diligently to have a perspective that can relate to a poor immigrant living in a shack without water on the edge of a border colonia. What does the Highland Park experience give to that journalist to help them understand suffering and the fear of living in a country riven with drugs and violence, a fright that drives them thousands of miles on foot for a chance to enter the US? The richest school district in Texas can almost certainly graduate bright minds but if they become reporters after college are they not disadvantaged when assigned to cover poor minorities living in barrios? The lens through which they perceive the world was polished by privilege. How can they relate and write about the struggles of the poor?
The same burden is placed upon the disadvantaged young person who rises from the tenement to win a scholarship and chooses journalism. Can a young ethnic journalist understand the psychological failings of a white person who comes from a world of money and endless opportunity but still manages to falter and commits a crime? Maybe, but the odds are that reporter will have to work hard to overcome an overwhelming feeling of disdain for a person who grew up with every privilege America has to offer and acted the fool and was irresponsible and blew the chance for a great life.
Objectivity, therefore, is mythology. We are formed by what happened in our lives until we came of age and to think any of us can abandon those experiences to access objectively any situation, well, it’s flat foolish. I have interviewed witnesses of tragic and historic events that unfolded before their eyes, all seeing the same event, and each of them had a different perception of what had just transpired. I can assure you that ten witnesses of a traffic accident will almost always offer ten different descriptions. The light might cause a distracting reflection on a sunny afternoon or the horror of seeing a deadly collision could create an inability to recall images because they were troubling, and the subconscious shuts down memory to protect the psyche.
During my decades writing politics in Texas there were recurrent characters I had to interview and profile and report their positions on issues. Several of these individuals seemed like perennial candidates, even though the demographics and political winds always portended their failure at the polls. One such determined soul ran for statewide offices a few more times than he was advised, and finally surrendered to his political fate. Oddly, I was invited to his retirement party many years after he quit politics and had moved to Houston. He appeared to have been knocking down drinks with the same fervor he campaigned, and when he saw me, his stagger described a zigzag across the floor.
“Hey, I wanted to say somethin’ to you,” he said. “Before I forget what it is, or you leave.”
“Sure, okay. But I was wondering if you had any business plans or anything you were going to do now that you are leaving public life,” I said.
“Never mind that.” He was swaying, now, drunkenly. “I really need to tell you somethin’.”
“Okay, what’s that?”
“Well, I’ve been living in Houston several years now, and I see you on TV all the time. See your reporting. Only time I ever saw it when I was campaigning was when the staff sent me tapes.”
“I used to look at those tapes and get mad as hell,” he said. “Every story you did I thought you just treated me like shit. But you know what?”
“I guess I don’t.”
“I’ve been watching you on TV here and it turns out you treat everybody like shit. So, I don’t feel so bad anymore.”
“I guess I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said.
He turned, ungainly, his drunken confession completed, and teetered back across the room.
While I disagreed with his scatological analogy, I took the old pol’s declaration to be a compliment. I worked hard to treat everyone the same, whether they were governors, presidents, or the dispossessed living under a bridge. This is the goal of journalism, to be fair, put away the disingenuousness of claiming objectivity, and fairness is possible to achieve.
There are certainly subtle methods to manifest bias and prejudice in reporting, and they happen daily. The most obvious occurs in the editorial decision of what to cover, and then how that story is framed for an audience. NBC News anchorman, the late David Brinkley, once told a colleague, when discussing the news of the day and disputing what were the important stories, that, “The news is what we say it is.” This meant that the editors in the newsroom might decide to expend resources on a story about a congressman’s sex scandal rather than using those same reporters and photographers to cover the passage of a law important to all the American population. A few network influencers decided what was critical for their audience to know even though that choice was often guided not by political or cultural importance, but rather what story will attract the most viewers.
There ought to be very little disputatious about what is news. We see, however, almost daily, how editorial decisions can leave a population of hundreds of million uninformed by the networks. FOX News is more likely to rerun stories about Hillary Clinton’s email servers than they are impeachment hearings of Donald Trump, or they might revisit the Benghazi nonsense even as a sitting president of the United States is being accused of violating the law. The network’s goal is about engaging and growing a large audience to sell access to it for their advertisers. Providing useful and important information is not a requirement in a free market no longer regulated by the Fairness Doctrine. I have more than once, been at an airport departure lounge watching people staring at FOX News delivering the most biased possible rendering of the day’s news, and a viewer nearby, discussing the story with an associate, said, “Well, they couldn’t put that on the TV if it wasn’t true.”
They certainly could, of course, and they do, and have been since Ronald Reagan blew up the Fairness Doctrine with his veto in 1987. The concept was rooted in the Communications Act of 1934, which was written to make certain that the airwaves, owned by the taxpaying American masses, were operated in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” FDR was trying to prevent monopolistic control of information by the three radio networks proliferating across the land. The Fairness Doctrine was an iteration, in many ways, of the 1934 law and endeavored to codify the idea that the public should be exposed to opposing perspectives because their airwaves were being used by profitable broadcasters. The goal was to prevent the “unfairness” of a for-profit broadcasting company disseminating an idea or opinion that might benefit that broadcaster’s profit but give the public only a half truth. It’s hard to know if any consideration was given to potential damage to the culture or the electorate by telling them that an untruth was, instead, factual.
Reagan’s removal of the mandate for fairness meant consumers of information needed more personal due diligence to ferret out the truth of a story. The problem was compounded in 1996 by Bill Clinton when he signed into law the 1996 Telecommunications Act to remove conflict of interest restrictions on major-media ownership. This meant, among other things, a media corporation could own more than one outlet in any broadcast market, and owners of those outlets were no longer constrained by conflicts of interest. If, for instance, you were the wealthy manufacturer of a nutritional supplement that promised eternal youth and sexual prowess, you might consider investing in your own network to then promote your dubious products, which would be completely legal. In America, though, such investments are a bit more insidious. Arms manufacturers can own media and then use their access to the public to promote war, and with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizen’s United, those wildly profitable weapons companies can donate uncontrolled amounts of money to politicians to bang the drums of war.
The idea of arms manufacturers owning interests in media and promoting war might seem dystopian, but it is not just theoretical. The group FAIR - Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting - examined just such a relationship during the first Gulf War. In 1991, it reported that General Electric, which owned NBC News and the entire network, designed, manufactured, or supplied parts or maintenance for nearly every major weapons system used by the U.S. during the Gulf War. The list included Tomahawk Cruise and Patriot missiles, the Stealth bomber, B-52 bomber, AWACS plane and the NAVSTAR spy satellite systems. The investigators, Norman Solomon, and Martin A Lee, wrote in Unreliable Sources, that “when correspondents and paid consultants on NBC television praised the performance of U.S. weapons, they were extolling equipment made by GE, the corporation that pays their salaries.”
GE still had a fiduciary relationship with NBC News with the launch of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In fact, as FAIR reported, in 1989 a few years before the first Gulf War, the corporation had received almost $2 billion in military contracts for systems that were used in that attack, and in 2004, after we had invaded Iraq, the Pentagon listed GE as its eighth largest contractor with $2.4 billion in government weapons contracts, according to the Defense Daily International. Maybe that’s why no one sounded more militant, in my view, than anchorman Tom Brokaw, who praised George W. Bush’s leadership and explained that when innocents were hurt or killed in the invasion it was because Saddam had placed them in harm’s way. He apparently believed GE’s missile systems were so precise they could kill members of Saddam’s Republican Guard without wounding an Iraqi citizen. I was, frankly, ashamed to consider myself part of a craft that included Brokaw; especially when he patronized the president with questions that essentially amounted to, “Explain to us your greatness, Mr. President, and how your genius reached this decision to invade.”
I recall a discussion with one of my editors during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that brought into graphic relief my unhappiness with news management and the foolish life choices I had made to be a part of such an undertaking. The sweet bird of youth had whispered in my ear that journalism could make a difference in the world, and it has, but probably more predominantly a negative impact in recent decades, not positive. Nonetheless, because I read and was obsessed with politics, I knew that my country had built up the arms and weapon supplies of Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. I even remembered a picture of Donald Rumsfeld, in his first tour of duty as Defense Secretary, shaking hands with the Iraqi dictator as we concluded a deal with the strongman to provide him with poisonous sarin gas rockets to shoot at our enemies in Iran. Even as our defense contractors beefed up Hussein’s military, he was torturing and killing his political enemies, particularly Kurdish rebels in the North, and suddenly we were asking him to kill at our behest and, of course, in our national interest, which has always been used to justify all sorts of American international capers, including assassination.
None of the editors to whom I reported were interested in that story. I spent the early part of the first Gulf War going to military bases and profiling families torn apart by soldiers departing for Kuwait. They’d be deployed from there to push Saddam’s army out of the country and risk their lives while the sons of sheiks partied at discos in Paris. My assignment, which would have been perfect for covering the back story of our political confrontation with Iraq in the early 90s, was to report from Washington on politics regarding the war. Saddam was certainly a tyrant, but I realized the important distinction was that he was our tyrant. I spent too much of my time listening to Pentagon and political briefings hearing about precision and laser-guided missiles and surgical strikes and watched from afar the manipulation of “embedded” media. Reporters were given a ride with American troops and got to see their perspective from guns and bombs fired downrange but there was little to no coverage of the blood and thunder where those munitions landed on target. The conflict was sanitized into a video game. As Christopher Hedges wrote, “The notion that the press was used in the war is incorrect. The press wanted to be used. It saw itself as part of the war effort.” Hell, a lot of anchors and reporters wore flag pins on their lapels.
When anyone wonders how America got to its present state of bipolar dysfunction, the obvious answer is to point to the interbreeding of media and corporate interests and political ambitions, which all combine to destroy scrutiny of right and wrong. There was a time in modern history when lying, and even exaggeration, ruined a politician’s career in the U.S. Our candidates and officeholders now use lying as a tactic and even include it, unofficially or otherwise, as part of their overall strategic planning. Instead of reporters calling out a candidate for untruths, the candidate points the finger at the journalist and accuses them of reporting fake news. The accusation isn’t even subject to proof. It simply sticks and as it slowly seeps into the culture as it renders journalism meaningless. Maybe that had already happened with corporate manipulation and it’s just now a part of the public discourse. As journalist A.J. Leibling said in the previous century, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
If you think all this is going to change, you are either wildly optimistic or naïve. You are over a barrel. In fact, we all have an economic and institutional boot on our necks, or as George Carlin once said, “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” While we are all busy carpooling the kids to soccer, paying the mortgage, working ten-hour days, fretting about college expenses, saving for retirement, and paying off credit card debt, they know you are too busy to pay attention. They are making it harder for you to vote and even more difficult for you to find the truth about a candidate or an issue. Broadcast news isn’t dependable, and the Internet is a digital rabbit warren of confusion. It’s simpler for the power brokers to put their millions in places that make your voice irrelevant. The money and power machine barely notice that you are even alive until you fail to make your mortgage payments and then they just kick you to the curb and sell the house to someone who has a bit more reliable income.
Every rigged game, though, eventually, comes undone, and ours will be no different. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a cliff up ahead. Every day it comes closer, and we keep running faster in its direction.