There’s an increasingly commonly refrain circulating these days. It was best summed up by US President Donald Trump in a recent speech: “as you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
Dishonest media, concerned with nothing but making a buck and driving their own agenda, blinded by bias and dishonest as the day is long. And untrustworthy, too. Not to mention dishonest.
But the media can’t be dishonest, because the media isn’t an actual thing. ‘The media’ is as useful a term as ‘religion’ or ‘government’. It means whatever we want it to mean when we’re on a tear about some topic or other.
We say, ‘religion is the enemy of science’ or ‘government taxation is theft’. We justify these statements with particular examples that serve our purpose. It’s a great rhetorical line, because it quite literally cannot fail. Let’s try a few:
- Religion is the refuge of the poor. The majority of churchgoers are below the poverty line, and it provides comfort to those most in need.
- Religion is a parasite on the poor. The Catholic Church builds immense cathedrals in some of the poorest nations of the world, amassing the most wealth of any organisation in the world while the majority of its membership languishes in poverty.
- Big Government is deadly. Thousands of people were exposed to lead poisoning in the United States last year because an inept and inefficient bureaucracy allowed the nation’s infrastructure to decay, but still spent billions of their tax dollars.
- The Nanny State saves lives. Thanks to direct regulatory intervention against smoking, unhealthy diet and other lifestyle choices, poor New Yorkers now live longer than poor Americans in other cities.
A world without distinctions can be made to look like anything at all. We can gloss over inconvenient facts; we can outweigh any counter-argument. We can tar everyone with the same brush.
Generalisation is the enemy of understanding.
‘The Media’ is a particularly pernicious generalisation. Once upon a time, ‘the media’ was ‘the press’. It was newspapers and not much more. Then came radio. Then came network television. Then cable. Then the internet. And we encompass all of this with ‘the media’.
We use the word ‘media’ when we mean ‘journalism’ or ‘the news’. But ‘media’ is Latin. It’s plural for medium. A medium is quite literally the middle of something. It’s where we meet.
And when we attack the media, we attack communication itself.
Don’t believe me? Let’s listen to White House Rasputin Steve Bannon: “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while”.
It may be dressed up for dinner, but that sentence still says, ‘people should stop talking about us.’
When people attack ‘the media’, they typically hold it up to the mirror of objectivity and dispassionate reporting.
These are straw men. They are practically unattainable goals, and they disguise a journalist’s true priorities: Honesty, fairness, scepticism and a willingness to be led by the facts.
People argue that major American news outlets—the so-called ‘mainstream media’—were in the bag for Hillary Clinton. First off, the facts don’t support that. The news coverage of her use of a private email server almost certainly cost her the presidency. Second, there was a huge diversity of opinion in reporting and interpreting Mrs Clinton’s activities. Just as there was a startling—and reality-defying—diversity of opinion in reporting and interpreting Mr Trump’s campaign.
The biggest problem in how the news was reported was not actually in how the news was reported. There were problems there, to be sure. But they mostly arose from mistaken attempts to cleave too closely to the ideals of neutrality and objectivity.
There is a great danger in distancing ourselves too much from the events and the people that we report on. While it’s fair and proper that we faithfully report the statements of public figures, we do a disservice to the public to treat abnormal utterances identically to normal ones.
It’s one thing to respect the dignity of public office by reporting faithfully what someone says. It’s another thing to baulk at calling them out when they lie. That’s the worst kind of bias.
Our challenge is not to eliminate bias, but to keep it where everyone can see it.
Everyone in the world is subject to bias. It’s the human condition. If I say something perfectly factual to you in Bislama, you receive it differently than if I said it in English. Likewise with French. Or Mandarin. Or Cantonese. A whole raft of assumptions come into play, and depending who you are, they will lead you to trust me more or less.
Bias is what we’re made of.
If someone suggests that my newspaper should ‘keep its mouth shut and listen’, I’m not going to take that neutrally. I’ll report it faithfully, of course. People deserve to hear those words unfiltered. But I will make sure that there’s no mistake that such utterances from a key public figure constitute a veiled threat to free speech.
Calling ‘the media’ the opposition is tantamount to calling the people the opposition.
The Daily Post faced a similar situation in Vanuatu when we were accused of playing politics with the news. But all news is inherently political. And telling someone to shut up, for any reason, is not only political, it’s unlawful.
In the United States and Vanuatu—and in most countries in the world—freedom of speech is explicitly protected in the Constitution. That means all speech.
Journalists and editors face a particularly difficult series of decisions here, because we can’t fit everything everyone says into a news report. Judiciously trimming out the extraneous details—and assiduously uncovering the missing ones—is the stock in trade of every reporter. It’s much harder to do than most people realise.
So pretending that we’re going to be perfect about it can only end in disappointment. When others keep measuring the news against this impossibly high bar, it’s a deliberate exercise in disillusionment. There are people who actively indulge in this narrative. For some of them, their only goal is to create so much mistrust that people will simply not believe reports of their misdeeds.
Bias works. Bias is who we are. Pretending to be unbiased is an exercise in futility.
If everything is working properly, we have a diversity of voices and opinions, a variety of perspectives. Not any single one of them is guaranteed to be complete, perfect or even correct.
But as long as we practice a healthy scepticism and allow the facts to lead us where they will—rather than inventing a reality that matches our prejudices—we should all make it through this okay.
The Daily Post celebrated a milestone this week, printing its 5000th newspaper, and I’m happy to wear my positive bias about that on my sleeve. It’s right and proper to note that without its example, the state of public dialogue in Vanuatu might look a like more like America than it does.
Let’s keep it that way.