Friday, July 7, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Defending Journalism

Freedom of the Press:1:19
“Happy is the man…”

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter,
and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties.”

John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)

“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

Hannah Arendt, in a 1974 interview with French writer Roger Errera,
and subsequently published in The New York Review of Books (October 26, 1978)

This post is about defending journalists and the profession of journalism, which was the subject of my first post many years ago. It is no secret that journalists have always faced attack from governments around the world, notably those that are led by dictators and other authoritarians. (A worldwide ranking of press freedom can be found here; Norway is ranked first, Canada is 22nd, the U.S. is 43rd, and not surprising, North Korea is ranked last of the 180 nations.)

To be fair and accurate, the U.S. was ranked 41st in 2016, 47th in 2011/12, both during President Barack Obama’s terms in office. Its lowest ranking was 53rd in 2006 under President Bush's presidency. (Its highest rank was 17th on the first list published in 2002, before the “war on terror” became normative.)

By way of comparison, Canada’s rank is comparatively higher, in the top ten, but not always: 5th in 2002, 18th in 2006, 8th in 2015 and 18th in 2016, and a decrease of four spots, as noted above, in 2017. Some of this might be a carryover from the tenure of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who viewed the press with less equanimity than Canada’s current political leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Back in America, a pattern limiting the freedom of the press has been set in the last decade, and it’s not likely to improve soon, for reasons that revolve around the current president’s inability or unwillingness to tell the truth. Bear in mind that the U.S. has never been among the top ten nations of press freedom, which is somewhat surprising given its strong and robust First Amendment. Even so, the situation might actually become worse, since it is the institution of the press that is now routinely attacked, undermining its importance and credibility.

I write this almost six months after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the  United States. For those who like the man and his views, the attacks are not only appropriate and necessary but also long overdue and entertaining. Such describes a certain view of America, one that I could never subscribe to. Putting aside partisan politics, attacking the media as an institution is just plain wrong and short-sighted. And counter-productive. And harmful to democracy.

In the worst of cases, in the least-democratic nations, the media has little or no freedom and becomes an organ, a mouthpiece, of the ruling regime. What results is not news, but propaganda. There is great difference between the two. And an important one, too. The latter is based on falsehoods; the former on truths. The press works on the premise of accessing, finding and revealing such truths—no matter the cost. It’s a high and worthy ideal.

The mainstream media plays a fundamental role in civil society that no other institution can duplicate or replace. This includes getting your “news” from social media and talk radio, where opinion can masquerade as fact. Again, there is a distinction. A fact is a statement that can be proven true or false; whereas an opinion is based on one’s feelings or beliefs. Attempting to reduce the scope and influence of the mainstream media by calling its reportage “fake news” undermines democracy and the values it represents. Professional journalists work within stated guidelines and ethics that have been tested over time.

Getting the story right, which means getting the salient facts, is the basis of journalism. For example, last month The New York Times published (“President Trump’s Lies;” June 23, 2017) a detailed and comprehensive list of President Trump’s lies. This is good journalism in that it clearly shows how often this president lies. These are verifiable facts. The article, after so much factual evidence, builds a case, offering an opinion on the consequences of such outlandish behavior: “He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.”

This is good journalism, since it shows the reality of what is taking place in the White House, using the truth of facts to support it. Or, in other words, truth is the basis for reality, which is fundamental for democracy. Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who wrote about totalitarian regimes and how they are formed, says that “a lying government”—and this is now the case in America—corrodes the confidence that people have in in their government, much in the same way a lying spouse corrodes the trust in a marital relationship.

Vaclav Havel wrote about “living in truth” to ensure that you live in reality. Dictators and other authoritarians always distort reality; dictators and other authoritarians always lie to engender fear and confusion; dictators and other authoritarians always view the press with suspicion and hostility, since the last thing they want published are facts, the truth and what is really taking place, or in other words, reality.

Thus, there is good reason why freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The press acts as a countervailing force, a watchdog, if you will, to government over-reach; yes, there are the courts, but these are legal means, which often take time to make the necessary corrections to executive branch over-reach. The press, on the other hand, provides quick news, information and salient facts to its citizenry so that they will have the right knowledge to be better informed citizens. Given the pressures that the press faces, it is truly exemplary that journalists more often than not get the story right.

I, myself, studied journalism more than 20 years ago and received professional training from an excellent university with a respected journalism program. During the years, I have met and worked with many good journalists; I know the character of these men and women, and it would be fair to say I have yet to meet one who was dishonest or who desired to make up or fabricate news stories. Journalists are human and sometimes make mistakes, but all serious publications then issue retractions as soon as the facts are known.

The best journalists see themselves as public servants, and I am thankful for their sense of civic duty, for their diligence and for their professionalism. Journalists have points of views; and journalists cannot be expected to be completely objective (but the methods are objective), despite best efforts for fair and balanced reporting. This comes out in how the story is written, formulated and presented, but this is a far cry from “fake news.” This is why it is always important to read many news sources from reliable publications. But when the major publications are all  saying the same thing, you can be assured that the story is verifiably true. It is factual. It is accurate.

In its basic essence, journalism is a story about people and what is happening today, giving us a sense of how this will effect on our society. Journalism has a long and noble history of giving voice to the voiceless, since the wealthy, the influential and the powerful already have a strong voice in society. By weakening the media, and in particular the liberal media, the Trump Administration wants to quiet those voices. Doing so, however, will weaken civil society and the ideas common to a free and unfettered press. Doing so will only weaken democracy. Doing so will weaken the free flow of ideas.

One can argue for the general truth of this statement, but also agree that in the particular case of the U.S., which has strong constitutional protections and where journalists seem generally undeterred by such attacks, it may be less so. Even so, there is worry and concern that it will weaken Americans, who will find themselves with little substantive and real news, other than what the White House releases. Constant lies and the immoral defense of them. This is what authoritarian regimes do; this is what dictators do. The world watches what takes place in the U.S. and its effects spill over to places where the institutions of democracy are weak and where the chilling effect will be keenly felt. This is never a good thing.


  1. Freedom pf the press is enormously important, which is why it does not and cannot exist in Marxist countries, which are looking forward to the days when all people think alike, so that the state can wither away.
    Unfortunately, freedom of the press does not require that all important news be published. ISIS apparent burned 19 Yazidi girls alive, but the story hardly made the headlines.
    Similarly, the press hardly reported the mass murders of Jews during World War II:

  2. "Professional journalists work within stated guidelines and ethics that have been tested over time.", "Watchdogs of public servants...", "...[act] as [responsible] public servants[willing but not necessarily, capable]". That sums it all, Mr. Greenbaum... Thank you for stating it.

    "The problem..." says J. J. Rousseau, I believe in his DISCOUR SOCIAL, "... is that the individual is unaware of its true will had it not been exposed to all available options out of which to make its choices or, had it not been misled my corrupt institutions."

    I will not defend the journalists anymore than they, honorably deserve to be upheld and applauded to, I will just recall some names many of whom earned prizes like the Pulitzer prize and others, such as Wilbur Schram, Marshal McLaughlin, Walter Cronkite and others in spite of the dismal conflicting political environment surrounding them. They did it but journalism profession was barely being conceived in the womb of society.

    But now I defend myself as a national of Canada and others who are less fortunate in a world governed by wars, anarchy and corruption. That is my problem and these nationals remind me of myself before I came to Canada thirty years ago.

    Everyone is a journalist, from parent, teacher, superior, subordinate to public servant.


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