Of our children, we expect much, of journalists and politicians less. In the case of journalists, we are getting accustomed to spleen-venting activism, growing loss of objectivity – any pretense to objectivity.
That is disappointing, but history suggests not unique. We are going back to “yellow journalism,” the loss of ethical standards, a tightfisted race to the bottom.
This week, Fox News reported that many reporters are throwing the towel in, consciously taking the low road, content to trade “fairness and objectivity” for “opinion” and political activism. Sad but true – yellow journalism is roaring back. See, More journalists admit and embrace bias, dismissing ‘fairness’ in new era of media.
Historically, Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, Walter Lipman, Ernie Pyle, and Dick Tragaskgar (last two WWII correspondents) taught quality. Americans revered them. Those figures are now anomalies, anachronisms, increasingly quaint. Ethics and accuracy are out.
Context is important and mildly comforting. America has experienced dark periods when journalistic ethics fell off and survived. They are worth reviewing, which may help inform us now.
The term “yellow journalism” emerged in the late 1800s. It was not a racial slur, reference to missed sunsets or cowardice, but to a yellow-clad cartoon. Why did a cartoon become an insult? Because a publisher, Joseph Pulitzer at the New York World, converted news into entertainment.
One hundred years earlier, Thomas Jefferson, who believed in a free press, disdained news as entertainment, worried the blend would erode the Republic. He decried “news writers … without any regard to truth,” misleading “the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs in a newspaper.” Wisdom indeed!
Jefferson wrote: “I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordure’s are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food.” By food, Jefferson meant truth, facts.
Well, by the late 1800s, Pulitzer was all about yellow. He carried a cartoon – along with racy, gory, and sensational headlines, crime stories, morality plays, and even nudity, causing others to cry foul. He was not done. Beyond entertainment, he supported “progressive” policies and the Democratic Party. Yes, it all began back then. There was media partisan, a party-centric media.
While some took the high road, like Charles Dana of the New York Sun, saying news as entertainment was unserious, lacked “judgment” and “staying power,” others followed Pulitzer. Another who paired entertainment and news was Willian Randolph Hearst, who bought the San Francisco Examiner and then the New York Journal to give Pulitzer a run for his money.
Hearst got under Pulitzer’s skin, combining glitz, gab, and gossip with hard news. Before antitrust laws, Pulitzer dropped his paper to a penny, leading Hearst to raid Pulitzer’s staff. Ethics, it seems, were not very high back then, either.
The media has always struggled to present facts and maintain credibility while competing for readership, which has led them to indulge in edgy entertainment and partisanship.
Maybe mainstream media – which trumpet personal bylines, faces on camera and mic, ego and entertainment – will inevitably mix of truth and trash, accuracy and social pandering. In any event, here are facts that slice through decades, going back to the dawn of professional journalism.
First, the most respected journalists are always those who report truth, like Ernie Pyle on the front lines in Europe and killed at Iwo Jima, Dick Tragaskcar in both theaters, and seriously wounded in Europe, Walter Cronkite reporting our moon landings and Apollo’s 13’s miracle.
Second, crass attacks and lowlife entertainment – from glitz and garbage to trashing political leaders – has always reflected poorly on those doing the deed. Few recall the rude, crude, classless reporters – except as bottom dwellers, not worthy of a passing shrug.
Third, we have all survived – as a nation of entertained but discerning readers and viewers – for more than 200 years. We have an innate ability to distinguish junk from real news, the fake from facts, funning, folly, and fiction from the deadly serious.
Finally, journalism goes through phases, racing to the bottom in one era, bouncing back in another. Who knew Pulitzer, Dana, Hearst wrestled these issues? Or would it be succeeded by Pyle, Tragaskar, and Cronkite? Who knew round-the-clock CNN would produce Fox or that social media would rise on the backs of a brash New Yorker daring run for president?
In short, we should keep pushing the media to be credible, responsible, factual, accurate, and honest, but recognize their reputation is a spotty one, liberally sprinkled with dark interludes.
No surprise that this week Fox News reports “a growing number of prominent journalists have declared once-bedrock press principles like fairness and objectivity to be outdated and unnecessary since the Donald Trump era rocked American politics,” and “while some observers appreciate the honesty, others feel blending opinion and reporting” is “dangerous.”
In the media, expect the ball to bounce, ethics to come and go. Stay on guard. Contradictions abound. That is the beauty of the First Amendment and free press, I guess. We are taught to read with a jaundiced eye. They call it “yellow journalism,” and we are here again.