Whatever happened to the journalistic ethics of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite?
With today's deluge of media outlets, through cable television, radio, and the Internet, there is an unprecedented level of competition for viewers, listeners, and readers. Many newer outlets were conceived to publicize a point of view or carry stories that were being neglected by other media outlets. In terms of diversity of editorial orientations and enfranchising many more Americans to engage in political, economic, and civic affairs, these developments have been overwhelmingly positive. Yet, those benefits come at a price.
Ironically, the proliferation of media venues created both a concentration and a fragmentation of media audiences. Concentration has been achieved by some channels, programs, and Internet sites that have garnered a critical mass of viewership, and the publicity surrounding their content has intensifed their mass markets. At the same time, fragmentation has occured by the spawning of websites, radio programming, and cable tv channels around niche topics, formats, or viewpoints that have built small but devoted audiences. In both cases, this evolution has caused the competition among outlets for sponsorships and advertising revenues to intensify. In order to meet financial needs by increasing market share and audiences, content is often distilled in its most concentrated form, to best appeal to the audience base. The result is that today's media onslaught is as much about ratings, advertising revenues, media industry dynamics, and ideological proselytization as about news and public affairs.
The consumers are both the winners and losers from this trend. On the one hand, there is a much greater opportunity to remain informed at a time, and in a manner, that is convenient to the recipient. There is also the opportunity to receive news and information from journalists, bloggers, and analysts who conform to the recipients' orientation about what is and what is not the truth.
On the other hand, many viewers and readers are not aware of the corporate ideology that underlies the news that they have become accustomed to receiving. Objectivity often takes a back seat to advocacy, and consumers are often fed editorials under the guise of news. Some consumers can distinguish between the two and choose accordingly. Others are not aware of the underlying ideology that biases their intake. The consolidation of major television and cable channels under a handful of corporate conglomerates makes it all the more likely that the channel being viewed is governed by these biases.
Even the news produced by the Public Broadcasting Service has been assailed for having a political bias, though newer management came under fire for over-correcting its orientation. Either way, it is seen by many as being too esoteric and erudite to be a compelling alternative for a broad-based audience, perhaps because it does not have a corporate profit / loss objective to satisfy.
So, on whom can the public rely for truly objective news, and how can they be assured that they're getting "the straight stuff"?
Ideas / Solutions
One route to objective news is to create a new nationwide for-profit news channel that takes the best of both corporate and public broadcast approaches. It would need to be well financed to compete with the other major outlets, yet, it must be divorced from a desire to advocate for a point of view.
The Blind Trust Network (BTN) would be created under the auspices of the FCC. It would solicit funds from corporate America, charitable foundations, advertising interests, private citizens, and even Federal public affairs agencies. All monies would be held in a blind trust. In that way, editorial decisions (on what stories to cover and how to cover them) would be firewalled from doctrine. Donors would not be allowed any contact with the personnel involved in the BTN.
The top-level decision-making for the BTN would be conducted by a board of directors comprised of university professors, scholarly experts in journalism and public affairs, retired esteemed journalists, retired judges, and Nobel laureates from any discipline. They would have to approve the hiring of all persons who would have purview over the channel's day-to-day operations, and the criteria for employees would exclude anyone with strong political ties to any political party or significant political interest group. Programming would be subject to continual review by the board, with input from a rotating panel of private citizens whose feedback would be continually solicited for audience impressions and reaction.
News anchors would be prohibited from using judgmental terminology that is today routinely used to coax the viewer toward the views that the channel or the anchorperson believes are right or wrong. News stories could not ascribe to the "pile on effect" that is currently used to further excoriate political opponents even when there is no real new news on the topic. Instead, the BTN could focus part of its programming on news stories from around the country and around the world that are not receiving attention on the major news channels. Feature pieces would have to be pre-approved by the board to ensure against their being used to advance the agenda of a particular newscaster, editor, or interest group.
There is no way to fully insulate media content from subjectivity, after the greeting, "Good evening, and here's the news". For that matter, at its best, news programming has a valuable role in stirring viewers' passions, sounding the beacon for action, and calling for the resolution of public problems. However, the BTN can tip the balance away from today's trend, and toward a fair presentation of facts and information placed in the public arena by thought leaders and by the clash of interests.