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viewpoint

Is there a problem with our looking glass?

| Monday, February 12, 2018

Thomas Jefferson once said, “the man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but the newspapers.” This remark came in an era very different from today, an era when journalism and reporting did not connect people nearly as much as they do today, but the argument is poignant for today’s journalism. It seems like more and more, the reporting of outrageous claims, use of anonymous sources and the cries of “fake news” are increasing. That claim is a little strong, but I do believe that journalism has taken a significant turn and “the fresh page is marred with fake and bizarre news before a single accurate word is written.” Those words were written in an opinion piece covering the inauguration of President Trump published by The Washington Times in January 2017, and the point remains potent. Journalism seems to be less about reporting and accurate fact-checking, and more about opinion and attitude. In this sense, modern-day reporting shares some of the techniques of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was one of the most influential newspaper editors who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and he is often credited with pioneering yellow journalism. Instead of taking the time to research topics and make sure the information reported is completely accurate, yellow journalism often took a tabloid/reactionary perspective to this process. In some ways, then, Hearst pioneered a Twitter mentality toward journalism — report on the most attention-grabbing events of the day and react to it, with an emphasis on “react.”

I am not saying journalism is nearly as “yellow” as it was in the days of William Randolph Hearst. Nor am I questioning the use of confidentiality when reporting comments and activities of sources. I am saying that a “new” era of journalism is fully underway with echoes of some of Hearst’s techniques; that is, the acceptance of exaggerating facts and naming anonymous sources as a segue to being able to report whatever is desired.

All of this isn’t being said while falling prey to the very same mistakes I am pointing out. No, instead, one may simply look at much of journalism, whether it’s covering sports or politics, to see the very things I am addressing.

On Jan. 4, Seth Wickersham, a sportswriter for sports network ESPN wrote an article that went into detail documenting the organizational and trust issues that exist in the New England Patriots football franchise. Wickersham bases a large part of his information on “interviews with more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team’s inner workings.” Unquestionably, maintaining the confidentiality of sources is needed, especially when highly controversial things are published. The only problem is that the head coach of the Patriots, their owner and their star quarterback, whose relationship was questioned in Wickersham’s article, deny any truth in that article. It would be impossible to discern who is “right.” That’s not even the most important thing at stake here. The point is that the nightmare of discerning “fake news” from truth is getting more and more hazy and complicated.

As another example, Michael Wolff, author and journalist, recently published a highly controversial book, entitled “Fire and Fury,” that is an expose on the Trump administration. However, the book has come under fire for reporting many unsubstantiated claims about our president. President Trump vehemently denied what Wolff wrote on Twitter and even threatened legal action against Wolff through his attorney. Again, we are caught in the middle of figuring out who to believe. And that drama sells papers and books.

Perhaps journalism isn’t at the root of what is really going on. Maybe exaggeration and the never-ending quest for headline-grabbing remarks and behavior have forced newspapers and articles to keep up. After all, from politics to sports, from President Trump’s often documented comments without base or fact to Lavar Ball’s intentionally incendiary remarks concerning his son, top-NBA prospect Lonzo Ball, it seems more and more like we live in a world where ridiculousness is the new norm. Once you enter the rabbit hole of following who has the most outlandish quote of the day, the character of journalism follows suite. Polarizing behavior is what makes the attention-grabbing stories and headlines. Can it really be any sort of shock, then, that modern journalism consequentially finds itself “trapped” (to use a strong word), falling down the rabbit hole, reporting using polarizing perspectives and not, perhaps, incorporating or promoting the importance of “the other side?”

I fully realize that this article may be viewed in the same light as the issues I am trying to bring attention to, a treatise on the woes of journalism that itself includes much opinion and does not include very many substantiated claims and proven facts on the direction I claim we are going. This is not my intention. Nor am I suggesting the cessation of reporting on difficult, sometimes contentious topics. I am merely an observer. What is the solution? There is no simple answer. The biggest obstacle to this is figuring out what the true question really is.

Perhaps in a broad sense, nothing at all is wrong with the direction journalism is taking. If journalism’s “point” is to report on the happenings of the times and put the ethos of the people into print, then maybe changing its character is the only natural course if the character of the people is what is really changing. Perhaps journalism is doing what is has always done; curiously following the white rabbit. What is the destination? Maybe it’s a rabbit hole. Maybe it’s Wonderland. I am merely suggesting we make sure before it is too late.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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