Journalism suffered a few blows this week and not for the reasons you might think.
First, NBC Nightly News anchorman Brian Williams was suspended and had his pay slashed in half after he apologized for conflating a story in which his war correspondence was at issue. I’ve written that I’m giving Williams (if not NBC News) the benefit of the doubt, which he’s given me no prior reason not to grant, though I think it’s clear that he is an example of journalism driven by having fans, not gathering, having and reporting facts. Still, I think NBC News is more responsible for whatever wrong has been done, given what is currently known. That the nation’s top anchorman was caught conflating (there is no evidence of lying) the truth, which he acknowledged and for which he apologized, who was, in turn, vilified by the press and the public without a proper and thorough inquiry and then suspended without half his pay before either exoneration or proof of wrongdoing strikes me as a disincentive for others to step up when they make a mistake. That NBC News, which is totally infected with subjectivism, is not at all transparent about what is known by its investigators compounds the problem. No one should expect NBC, which is controlled by a crony cable utility, to be objective about Brian Williams, his replacement or the news. What happened to Williams is, as I wrote when the story broke, a black mark on today’s journalism and not only because of Brian Williams. The blame also lies with those who watch.
This was my point a few years ago when I wrote about comedian Jon Stewart, who announced this week that he’s quitting his Comedy Central program. It’s the audience that ultimately propels today’s media and the vicious cycle of mistaking satirical, cynical, absurdist humor mixed with facts for news is that it leads to more reasons to feel like sneering at the world and its corollary that the whole world deserves it. So what’s left is a landscape of shockmeisters such as Howard Stern, Greg Gutfeld, Bill Maher, and other crude, sniveling types where once the public tuned in newsmen such as Harry Reasoner, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace. In between, even hosts and publishers such as Johnny Carson, Hugh Hefner and Tom Snyder were serious and intellectual compared with today’s often vacuous and self-centered TV personalities such as Oprah, Barbara Walters and Bill O’Reilly.
American media has been in a steep decline for decades, since Woodward and Bernstein made headlines out of relatively trivial matters and, perhaps through no intention of theirs, became bigger than the stories they covered. This made personality-oriented print and broadcast journalism all but a necessity in the age of new journalism. The fabricating began in earnest and it never let up, from Janet Cooke at the Washington Post to Jayson Blair at the New York Times. But the padding and airheaded advancement of stories not based on facts and truth emanated from the highest levels and the most vaunted institutions, not working class blokes like yours truly and other less anointed bloggers, freelancers and scrappy, self-made journalists. The list of those caught lying or concealing is not only long; it includes today’s biggest names: Mike Barnicle, Fareed Zakaria, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Joe Klein, to say nothing of the newspaper scandals in auditing circulation and the Los Angeles Times‘ Staples Center fiasco.
If you’re reading fake news, why not watch fake news that admits it’s fake?
Enter Jon Stewart and his cohort the ascendant Stephen Colbert, owing to the godfather of fake news, the Weekend Update segment on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Could Borat, stunts by Breitbart and Michael Moore’s Sicko among other fabricated stories be far behind? Now, Stewart, coddled by and nuzzling up to his intellectual cousin O’Reilly, formerly of the torrid A Current Affair, moves up into a presumably higher status. The circus goes on while the public knows less and seeks only to laugh through the sneer. So, the cycle continues: subjectivism spreads. Laughing with, or even at, the irrational as an evasion of being rational becomes a heavy burden that gets heavier with each major development. The Simpsons, once a segment on a Fox variety show, has been on the air for decades. Stewart has been on The Daily Show (note its antithesis to the nightly news) for 15 years. Deterioration of cultural discourse parallels the rise of the absurd and the asinine.
Last night, news came that punctuates the point. CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who traveled the world, took risks and was captured by an Arab dictatorship and held for 40 days, died in a car accident at the age of 73. Police said Simon was not wearing a seat belt and there may be more to the story.
But the fawning, personality-driven, subjectivist media wanted very little or nothing to do with facts. Fox News hostess Megyn Kelly mentioned Simon’s death briefly and then moved on. The Los Angeles Times did not find it necessary to bother addressing, let alone reporting, the circumstances of the car accident. CNN invited its leading newsman Anderson Cooper, who had his own syndicated daily talk show, as a guest to talk about working with Bob Simon. But, rather than discuss the facts of Simon’s death, Cooper kept saying that Simon’s death is “incomprehensible”. The fact is that dying in a car accident is not incomprehensible, especially if one is not wearing a seat belt.
The media’s herd mentality on Bob Simon’s death is that it is ironic because Simon lived in such a risk-oriented manner but died in a presumably random car accident. As the LA Times reported: “60 Minutes boss, executive producer Jeff Fager, noted the irony: Simon “had escaped more difficult situations than almost any journalist in modern times” but lost his life as a passenger in a hired car that smashed into a Mercedes Benz at a stoplight.” As usual, the Times reported only partial truth and they reported it as the definitive and final account. Strictly speaking, the Times report is false. Simon’s life was not lost in the manner the newspaper describes; Newsday reported that Bob Simon wasn’t wearing his seat belt and “died from blunt force head trauma as well as other injuries in a Manhattan car wreck” and that “a law enforcement source said his driver had nine past license suspensions and two outstanding traffic summonses.” Simon’s death is not ironic. On the contrary, if Newsday‘s report is true, Simon died as he’d lived: knowingly risking his life.
This aversion to reporting facts in favor of framing the story, in this case the Times‘ compulsion to impose an irony theme on the story regardless or in absence of the facts, is subjectivism. It starts with the public accepting, following and buying fake news and demanding more of it to consume and laugh at, lulling them into the plausible denial that the world is collapsing. Subjectivism ends, and objectivism in news begins, with thinking for oneself and demanding facts even if it means making an effort to gather, grasp and analyze facts. This means tuning out fake news and tuning in (or learning how to look for) real news. To use a noble phrase which is more likely to be satirized, being objective means seeking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about reality.