Fort Report: Media Trauma

Dec 9, 2016
Fort Report

An interesting thing happened in the wake of the recent election. A member of the elite press corps admitted to being a member of the elite. It's a stunning and refreshingly honest admission. The national media misread the election. Some are now beginning to recognize that they have been detached from the deep anxiety and vulnerability that many Americans feel. Perhaps this comes from the self-affirming circle of narratives they have created, which can easily pass for truth. Even the recent ongoing self-evaluation still reflects an air of self-righteousness. Just like the distrust directed at politicians, citizens have become deeply suspicious of the motives of journalists.

It's worth tracing how we arrived at this moment. Historically, American media played a pivotal role as watchdogs, as disseminators of carefully researched facts, and as creators of the conditions for personal and governmental accountability. Of course, things haven't always been well: the media have served as a tool for propaganda, political ambitions, and moneyed interests. However, when you think of Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley, you do not think of a political agenda, only good journalism. When you see the old newsreels from WWII, the media told the hard story, cutting the rougher details, but with an eye toward lifting the mood of the country. When you see the ugly aspects of racism directed at the early Civil Rights Movement, the media clearly participated as an objective force for social good.

The media’s turn towards bitter elitism likely started with Watergate. Before then, the media participated in a society of commonly shared values that Americans everywhere celebrated. Although the Watergate investigation was groundbreaking, the paradigm in the press shifted to one of rank distrust of civic institutions and the persons who lead them. Journalism schools reinforced that worldview. The media began suggesting, presumptively and too frequently, that those institutions and their leadership should be regarded as inherently corrupt. Tradition was scorned, and the “unenlightened” mocked and bullied. Nevertheless, the media still wants to be respected as an elite establishment, a veritable fourth estate, but decades of singularly cynical narratives have eroded that historic ideal.

Fast forward to today with the advent of new communication technologies. The dominant mainstream media no longer dominates. New information-sharing techniques have created a completely new dynamic for creative storytelling. Americans can self-select where and how to receive their news. There is a downside to this trend as well: Information overload is distracting to us; story-generators are often unknown; sensationalism rules. Media has splintered into ever-more Balkanized silos of rigidly enforced ideological purism, contributing to social fracture.

However, until this competition arrived, there was little mechanism to hold journalists accountable. Just as the elections left the aging Republican and Democrat playbooks in shatters, the aging industrial media complex is in disarray too.

On election night, like so many Americans, I was up very late. I chose a particular channel to watch the returns, one with an analyst I respect. As the night wore on, it was clear that they were having real trouble comprehending and communicating the results. They had a preconceived narrative, and they had difficulty abruptly adjusting to a new political reality. The election openly showed that media groupthink is real and voters are just plain tired of it.

Of course, there are good journalists; smart and thoughtful people who want to do the right thing. Particularly in Nebraska where local reporting is nested within the community, there tends to be a sense of civic virtue tied to reporting, a sense of community responsibility. That should be the media’s approach everywhere: to support a reporting climate of objectivity and integrity. Indeed, If media trauma is to be resolved, journalists must once again champion honesty and fairness, and, above all else, the ideals of public service.