Objectivity, division and the challenge of trust in the media

Our Opinion page concluded 2016 with a series of editorials focusing on what we see as the state of the free press in America today and worrisome threats it faces. Criticism of the series has come from opposing camps, exemplifying some of the problems we wanted to describe and representing the polarized approaches to political topics that make effective discussion so difficult.

You’ve seen some of these complaints in letters to the editor or in online comments following the editorials, and others will follow as space allows and their turn comes up. Here is their thrust: One set of critics declares the so-called mainstream media to be hypocrites who intentionally publish information and opinions unfair to Donald Trump. Another set, equally passionate, declares that this same body of media, if not biased in favor of the president-elect, has been so unwilling to challenge him that it is responsible for his election. How can one not see these competing points of view about the self-same reporting and not acknowledge that the assessments of the press are substantially determined, if not driven, by the particular assessor’s political and social point of view?

Both sides, I will point out from long experience discussing such things with people at the two poles, will answer that question with the same sentence. It is perhaps the only thing on which they agree: “Well, the other side is just as corrupt as you are.” Too many of us believe that our way of thinking is correct, and that anyone who doesn’t see the world as we see it, who doesn’t acknowledge how accurately we’ve applied the facts and logic to an argument is either devious, stupid or both. On a grand scale, that type of thinking has dominated our politics perhaps from the beginning and certainly in the past two presidential terms. It’s what keeps us from being able to achieve real compromise on matters that stir our passions. When it comes to determining what elements of the press one trusts, it’s what hinders us from making truly independent evaluations of that which we see, hear and read.

So I’m not going to try to persuade those of you who are convinced that, either stupidly or duplicitously, we are cheering for one side or the other. But I do want to point out some important things to those who would look at any news reporting and opinion with an open, independent mind:

One, remember that what we call the mainstream media was nothing the Founding Fathers experienced or could envision. The press of their day was polarized, vicious, ruthless and had but a limited regard for facts that did not support a given publisher’s point of view. The more-recent observation that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one” applied at least as accurately when James Madison wrote the First Amendment as it does today, when thanks to the Internet, everybody owns one. Two, it is out of that milieu that a more trustworthy press evolved striving for objectivity, for providing diverse points of view and for examining issues and reports from all sides — a press that sought, imperfect as the goal is for any human-driven enterprise, to let people evaluate facts and issues for themselves. And three, will you place your trust in an agency that openly boasts and displays its mission to persuade you, or in one that at least strives to report and respect contrary points of view?

I contend that society needs them all, and that individuals who would be productive, active, soul-searching participants in a democracy will make use of them all. But people will be crippled if they don’t have somewhere in the mix a press whose avowed mission is not to persuade them of a predetermined truth but to let them find their individual truth wherever the facts and arguments take them.

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