As a “boomer” who grew up before the advent of social media and the constant 24-hour news cycle, I yearn for the days when news was reported without “spin” to fit a predetermined narrative. When errors were made timely and prominent corrections were issued — organizations and individual reporters were held accountable. The American public looked up to such figures as Walter Cronkite, then known as "the most trusted man in America." Somehow, I do not think CNN’s Brian Seltzer or other network talking heads would have this same distinction!
As recently as 2004, CBS News fired four news executives and senior producers after an independent panel concluded that a "myopic zeal" to beat the competition led to a false story about President Bush's National Guard service. To his credit Dan Rather resigned as he did not participate in the vetting of the segment before he aired it on "60 Minutes." In 2015 NBC news anchor Brain Williams was fired for or lying about his “brush with death” during the Iraq war. In both instances to the media’s credit the system worked — major news anchors at fault were held accountable, and truth vice a false narrative prevailed.
However, I am deeply concerned that there has been a pronounced and evolving shift in both the media and Big Tech reporting disinformation — or in some cases outright propaganda. This has unfortunately become the “new normal” for many in the media. The Daily News-Record is excluded, of course! In our representative democracy, which depends on the media to hold elected officials accountable and serves to enlighten the electorate with facts, it is deeply disturbing to see this trend continue without any accountability or repercussions.
Over the past five years we have been bombarded with false reporting and a constant string of false narrative “bomb shells.” Examples include:
1) “Russian Collusion” — never proven by the Mueller investigation but pushed by multiple news outlets and now starting to unravel by the ongoing Durham probe. For months CNN parroted the falsehoods of the infamous Steele “Dossier” funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
2) The Rolling Stone “Rape” Story — a jury ruled the magazine committed defamation and the author committed actual malice — meaning the author either reported something knowing it was false or recklessly disregarded.
3) Russia paid bounties to kill U.S. troops — although widely reported by major news outlets, this practice was never substantiated by the U.S. intelligence community.
4) During the Jan. 6 “insurrection” Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick succumbed from injuries after being struck in the head by a fire extinguisher — the false story was later quietly retracted when the D.C. chief medical examiner determined he actually died from a heart attack.
5) In September, a photo of border agents attempting to control a large crowd of Haitian migrants was carried by multiple news outlets stating that the Border Patrol agents were “whipping migrants.” This story was perpetuated despite the fact that agents do not carry whips and the photographer of the image insisted he never saw the “whipping” take place. Another distorted fabrication to fit the narrative.
And until this very day political activism and false reporting by both the media and Big Tech continues unchecked and without consequences. A recent MIT study found that “false news spreads more rapidly on the social network Twitter than real news does — and by a substantial margin.” Sad, but true.
Unfortunately, this “news” is not based on facts or evidence but spun with the intent to fit a partisan narrative. Though people are only human and do make mistakes, it is concerning when events are deliberately contrived and twisted by those in the media who occupy a special position of trust. A crazed competition to be first with “breaking news” only serves the purpose of those who seize any opportunity to push a predetermined political agenda.
While visiting Monticello over Christmas with my grandchildren the words of Thomas Jefferson came to mind. The author of the Declaration of Independence warned us that “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”
This exhortation was clear and concise in his day, but it now needs redefining. The “twitterization” of news predisposes the modern electorate to seek information that confirms their own predispositions. Sadly, today many are happy just being “well-informed” within their own circle of biases rather than actually seeking the truth.
This current state of affairs is a disturbing commentary on us as citizens and journalists whose calling and duty it is to report the truth. We deserve much better from those in the Fourth Estate responsible for our “enlightenment.”
James R. Poplar III lives in Quicksburg.