“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’”.—John 8:31-47
There are certain words that should be written in capital letters for their intrinsic value and their significant influence in every civilized society. Some of these words are: God, Truth, Honor, Country, Beauty, Love, Life, Freedom. This is not by all means an exhaustive list, every social community has their own set of values according to their needs. In other words, every society has it own scale of values.
Today I will concentrate on the value of Truth and its relationship with journalism. According to the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, “Journalism is the investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience. Though there are many variations of journalism, the ideal is to inform the intended audience about topics ranging from government and business organizations to cultural aspects of society such as arts and entertainment. The field includes editing, photojournalism, and documentary. In modern society, news media have become the chief purveyor of information and opinion about public affairs”
In the 1920s, as modern journalism was just taking form, writer Walter Lippmann and American philosopher John Dewey debated over the role of journalism in a democracy. Their differing philosophies still characterize a debate about the role of journalism in society and the nation-state.
Lippman believed that the public is not smart enough to understand complicated, political issues. Furthermore, the public was too consumed with their daily lives to care about complex public policy. Therefore the public needed someone to interpret the decisions or concerns of the elite to make the information plain and simple. In Lippman’s world, the journalist’s role was to inform the public of what the elites were doing. It was also to act as a watchdog over the elites, as the public had the final say with their votes. Effectively that kept the public at the bottom of the power chain, catching the flow of information that is handed down from experts/elites.
On the other hand, Dewey believed that the public was not only capable of understanding the issues created or responded to by the elite, it was in the public forum that decisions should be made after discussion and debate. When issues were thoroughly vetted, then the best ideas would bubble to the surface. Dewey believed journalists should do more than simply pass on information. He believed they should weigh the consequences of the policies being enacted. Over time, his idea has been implemented in various degrees, and is more commonly known a “community journalism”.
While Lippman’s journalistic philosophy might be more acceptable to government leaders, Dewey’s approach is a better description of how many journalists see their role in society, and, in turn, how much of society expects journalists to act. Many citizens, for example, may criticize some of the excesses committed by journalists, but they tend to expect journalists to serve as watchdogs on government, businesses and actors, enabling people to make informed decisions on the issues of the time. They also expect that journalist be balanced and report the truth and this is where our problems begin.
In many instances, the media is responsible for reporting lopsided facts, outright lies, half-truths or fabricating stories of acts of corruption that never occurred. They do it because the owners of the media tell them what to report or what not to report. Many irresponsible journalists act as puppets of the owners of the media who have their own self-interest agenda. In order to make money they manufacture the news through their journalists, and it works. During my lifetime I have seen the decline of the highest standards of journalism.
An excellent example of the lying game, was the 1948 elections in the United States between then President Harry S. Truman, the incumbent candidate, and Thomas E. Dewey, Republican challenger and and Governor of New York. “Dewey Defeats Truman” was a famously inaccurate banner headline on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on November 3, 1948, the day Truman beat Dewey in an upset victory.
The paper’s incorrect headline became notorious after a jubilant Truman was photographed holding a copy of the paper during a stop at St. Louis Union Station while returning by train from his home in Independence, Missouri to Washington. D.C. The Chicago Tribune, which had once referred to Truman as a “nincompoop”, was a famously Republican-leaning paper. In a retrospective article over half a century later about the newspaper’s most famous and embarrassing headline, the Tribune wrote that Truman “had as low an opinion of the Tribune as it did of him.” Instead of a Republican sweep of the White House and hold of both houses of Congress, the Democrats not only won the Presidency but also took over control of both houses of Congress. This what I mean about journalism going sour.
In my mind, names like Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite, Oriana Falacci, Bob Woodward, Tom Brokaw and Fareed Zakaria in the international arena, and names like Carlos Reyan, Herán Botello, Jorge Carrasco, Justo Fidel Palacios, Diana Arosemena, Arquimedes “Fat” Fernández in the domestic arena; raised the bar of professional journalism. They were in my humble opinion, objective and stuck to the fact as they really happened. They reported the events as they really happened so we would be able to create our own opinions and act accordingly when we cast our votes every five years.
These highly respected journalists firmly believed that journalists are obliged to tell the truth and must serve as an independent watchdog of powerful people and institutions within society. The essence of journalism is to provide citizens with reliable information through the discipline of verification, as well as providing a forum for public criticism. But it’s sad to see that this is not the case today. Publishers, owners and other corporate executives, especially advertising sales executives, are flexing their muscles to influence how news is reported and published. We are all aware that perception drives reality.
Recently, a beneficial law to promote the economic development of Colon, a city on the Atlantic terminal of the Panama Canal, was turned down after violent riots took the country by storm. Opposition political parties, extreme left movements, criminal gangs, and the media, controlled by influential businessmen, barraged the country opposing the new law. The reporting of the benefits of the law were blurred and turned upside down in an effort to repeal it. Many people who never read the law, accepted what the media said and rushed to the streets with burning tires, stones and rod sticks breaking and destroying anything within their sight to crush the “unjust legislation”. Again journalism gone sour.
A proliferation of junk journalism in recent years has eroded public trust in the media, now at a historic low. “The competition is so severe and the culture so demanding, news is obliged to do unnewsworthy things to survive,” says Marvin Kalb, a veteran broadcaster who is now director of Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. “Which is why a show like ‘PrimeTime Live’ does well in the ratings. But it has to engage in [deceptive] practices to achieve those ratings.” Lying, he says, “has become the rule when it should have been the exception…. The use of deception is so widespread and sophisticated it demeans journalism and damages badly the journalist and the public.”
“Study after study shows the American public holding the news media in lower and lower esteem. Experts and polls attribute the decline to an array of factors, including a mistrust of the huge corporations that own much of the U.S. media and a proliferation of print and broadcast tabloid journalism, where using deception and misrepresentation are common tools.
Too many investigations expose social aberrations, giving the public the feeling that media conglomerates have used ‘a bazooka to kill a fly,’ as one critic put it, aiming their guns on two-bit sleazebag criminals and welfare cheats who would never sue for damages. But that’s entertainment.” (The Lying Game, American Journalism Review)
By nature I’m an optimistic person who firmly believes we are not falling off the planet. I’m positive that sooner than later, we will have a new generation of responsible journalists who think that freedom of expression is essential to expose political corruption and populism in a democratic society, but only by saying the truth.
Temporal truth is not acceptable. I’m referring to the temporal truth about who did what to whom, and when, why and how, but the immutable truth—the truth about the authentic values of human freedom. By freedom I mean to be set free from the bonds that hold us captive by lies and deceit. Only the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth will set us free. Good Day.