“Facts…are the center. Facts. We don’t pretend that certain facts are in dispute to give the appearance of fairness to people who don’t believe them. Balance is irrelevant to me. It has nothing to do with the truth, logic, or reality” ~Charlie Skinner (The Newsroom)
I’ve recently taken to watching Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom. For those of you not familiar with Sorkin, he is known for creating fast-paced dialogue driven entertainment with credits including The West Wing and The Social Network. Like his political melodrama, The Newsroom is a fictionalized attempt at presenting a very real part of the American discourse in an idealized and dramatized fashion. However, the key message at the core of The Newsroom, that the media should focus more on reporting the truth and less on how to increase ratings and advertising revenue, is an extraordinary one that should be adopted by today’s modern media. While it is unlikely this show will spark a revolution in the realm of Mass Media, there are number of reasons why it should.
The line between lies and the truth is being blurred. In an attempt to be perceived as unbiased, many of the major news outlets shy away from calling out politicians and other public figures when they make factually untrue statements. Take the case of the Affordable Healthcare for America Act. If one actually takes the time to pick apart this bill, one can find plenty to like. In fact, when its individual components are polled they often have strong support. However, thanks to some of the less responsible news outlets, all people heard about during the debate on the issue were how it would create death panels and constitute a socialist take over of health care. Never mind the fact, there is factual evidence that not only would the bill do neither of those things, but the majority of it was something those now crying foul had created and supported in the first place. However these lies were allowed to propagate, because the decision was made that it was better to be fair and balanced than report the reality.
The lack of truth and clarity in our news programming has only served to drive the parties further towards their respective poles. The blessing and curse of a more interconnected society is it is now easier than ever to find like-minded individuals writing about what we care about. Instead of challenging our common misconceptions, the media has now segmented into factions that reaffirm them in order to carve out their niche in the giant money machine that has taken over the realm of news reporting. Even the not for profit news sources like National Public Radio are affected by this problem. Not necessarily because they are trying to cater to one group or another, but because when they report facts one side disagrees with they are immediately branded as having an unfair bias. Even though, in most cases it simply does not exist. So when the media refuses to take a side, even when that side is telling the truth, it continues to drive people to sources that will give them the answers they want to hear. Even if those answers are false.
The political discourse resulting from such a system is detrimental to a functioning democracy. This is perhaps the greatest danger a media sacrificing the truth for the appearance of neutrality poses. For those who do not subscribe to an ideology, it has become increasingly difficult to find a source of news that tells it like it is. This plants a seed of distrust throughout the populace that manifest itself in apathy, and in some cases, downright contempt for the political process. When this happens, many simply write off the process and refuse to participate. Thus opening the doors for sensationalist ads funded by big-money special interests to sway elections by demonizing politicians who disagree with them. When in reality, the only way one can combat perceived corruption is to engage in the very process that has been muddied by the actions of a few dishonest, powerful people. Something they no longer feel the need to do in an atmosphere of questionable statements that have been poorly vetted by those responsible for doing so.
While it is unlikely in the current political environment, the media must begin to turn away from the spin and sensationalism that drives ratings and back toward the journalistic traditions of Murrow and Cronkite. We must report the facts, even if those facts disproportionately favor one side’s point of view over the others. If we fail to do so the lines between reality and fiction will continue to be blurred, the political parties will only become more extreme in their views, and the political discourse will continue to devolve to a point where the average citizen no longer participates in our democracy’s central component: elective representation. Of course it will not be easy. It will require an entire generation of citizens who refuse to settle for the status quo. Who demand greater integrity and accuracy from the information they consume. Only then will hard-hitting, fact-based reporting cease being the exception and become the rule.