October 11, 2020
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Restoring Reason in American Culture, Part 2

Restoring Reason in American Culture, Part 2

In a recent essay, I explained how the social chaos being experienced in the U.S. today can be traced to a half-century of valuing emotion over reason, notably in education and journalism. Then, in a subsequent essay, I discussed the changes necessary to restore reason in education. This essay will discuss the changes necessary in journalism.

Let’s begin by noting how radically journalism has changed over the last century. In 1923 the American Society of Newspaper editors stated this fundamental principle of the profession: “Sound practice makes [a] clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion. News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.” In the same year a journalism textbook stated: “A news article should tell what happened in the simplest, briefest, most attractive and accurate manner possible; it should draw no conclusions, make no gratuitous associations, indulge in no speculation, give no opinion.”

In the 1960s that principle began to be eroded. By 2000, it hardly existed. At that time a study of journalistic practice concluded that “being impartial or neutral is not a core principle of contemporary journalism.” And a journalism textbook stated, “Rule 1 makes it clear that if any rules or policies have to exist, they can be broken—crushed whenever the news requires it.” And who determines whether the news requires it? You guessed it—whoever is writing the story.

Stated more honestly, the new rule said, “Do whatever you feel like doing.” Today that is the standard not only of print media but also of broadcast media, as well as of the blogosphere, and it is followed by virtually every news organization, including the influential New York Times (NYT).

In Journalistic Fraud (2003), Bob Kohn cited innumerable examples of dishonest reporting by the NYT under more than a dozen headings, including: slanting headlines and lead paragraphs, distorting facts and statistics, interviewing only people who agree with them, omitting news and opinions that placed the favored viewpoint in a bad light, and using labels and loaded language to evoke the desired response from readers.

Keep in mind that in addition to publishing its own paper, the NYT also provides a news service to hundreds of other news outlets around the country and beyond. What it says, true or false, biased or unbiased, reaches readers around the world, and chances are few of them consider the possibility that they are being misled.

For many decades, most Americans and others around the world have had their views shaped not only by teachers and professors, many of whom propagandize more than educate, but also by journalists, almost all of whom do not distinguish between their opinions and the facts. The influence of journalists is arguably stronger than that of educators because it continues throughout people’s lives.

Even worse, journalists as a class are considered on a level with scholars, when most of them are not. As Hungarian economist, philosopher, and Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek long ago noted, there are two kinds of intellectuals—one is experts, scholars, or original thinkers; the other, amateurs who are able to “readily talk and write” about a “wide range of subjects” in which they have no standing. In this group he included, among others, journalists.

The previous essay pointed out the need for educators to do their part in restoring reason to American culture. As this essay has noted, there is a need for journalists to do the same. The problem for them, of course, is as great as the problem for educators. For several generations, journalists have been taught to value feelings over reason and to regard their opinions as equivalent to truth and even to report it that way. Moreover, they respect the professors who cultivated that perspective and the industry mentors who encouraged it in them, and the fact that the vast majority of their colleagues have the identical perspective reinforces their conviction. So what steps can they take to recognize the need for change and act on it?

Reflect on what has happened since the fundamental principle of journalism, the separation of fact from opinion, was abandoned. Instead of receiving the information necessary to make wise judgments, the public has been mired in confusion. Where fact left off and opinion began became unclear. News organizations followed their biases in different directions and their audiences got very different versions of events. Heroes in one version were depicted as villains in another. Many readers/viewers were unaware of the changes that had occurred in journalism and continued to trust news sources that had lost their credibility. What some people believed to be fact, others considered error. Without an agreed upon factual basis for discussion, meaningful discourse became increasingly difficult. Suspicion increased, argument degenerated into quarrelling, and mutual respect gave way to mutual contempt. Deliberative bodies in government became incapable of deliberating and occupied themselves in blaming each other for their mutual failures.

Accept responsibility for causing the confusion and its effects and return to responsible reporting. Treat reporting the facts and offering your opinions as two separate challenges and exercise care in meeting each. When reporting facts, present  all of them, not just those that please you. Be aware of your biases—we all have them—and put them aside until you have finished reporting. Where there are two sides to a story, tell both with equal balance and fairness. Where some facts are in dispute or incomplete, make that clear to your audience. Above all, keep in mind that this intellectual discipline is not a suppression of your judgment, but a mere postponement, and that you are exercising it to fulfill a responsibility to your audience.

Take a stand professionally for objectivity and fairness in reporting. Speak to employers and colleagues who do not distinguish between fact and opinion. Let them know how you have changed your reporting and your reasons for doing so. Urging your colleagues to change can be more difficult than changing yourself, but it is the only way in which journalism can fulfill the public’s need to understand the problems and issues facing the nation and world and form sound judgments.

So much for what journalists can do to restore reason to our culture. But what can the average citizen do to encourage and support the change in journalism?

Admit the possibility that your news source(s) may be deceiving you. This admission is difficult to make. One reason is that we often feel a bond with our favorite reporters, particularly those we see on our TV screens. Those we have seen for years we may think of almost as family members. For us to think of them as deceivers can seem a betrayal of friendship. Another reason is that admitting we have been fooled comes close to admitting we have been foolish, and that can be embarrassing. But despite these obstacles, admitting the possibility that we have been deceived is a necessary prelude to the next step.

Appraise your news sources. Begin by focusing on a single news story and noting its basic framework—that is, its answers to Who? What? When? Where? How (in what manner)? Then note if any judgments are added about any part of the story. Judgments that are attributed to someone other than the author (example, “the police chief commented that”) are acceptable. Judgments not attributed in this way are presumably the author’s own, and represent inappropriate mixing of opinion with facts. Use this same approach with other stories to decide whether the mixing of fact and opinion occurs frequently.

Compare your news sources with other sources. Visit other news sources (newspapers, magazines, TV channels) and determine whether they tend to separate fact and opinion or mix them together. Also determine whether they include a wider range of stories; for example, do they report on important events that your news source doesn’t even mention? In addition, learn whether the individuals they interview for commentary on the news represent a fairer cross-section of viewpoints on issues than your news source does. Finally, if you find a news source that is more responsible than yours in keeping you informed, change news sources and let your old and new sources know what you decided and why.

Share your findings and decisions with your friends and family. Your reaction to this suggestion may be, “Doing that would be like poking a hornet’s nest. I don’t want to start a quarrel.” That is understandable. But you can let others know without being confrontational. All that’s necessary is to explain what you did and what you learned by doing it. You’ll be sharing an experience, not promoting a viewpoint. Your message will simply be, “I wanted to learn if I was being manipulated, and I found out.”

As this essay and the preceding one have argued, the restoration of reason to American culture will depend on substantive changes being made in education and journalism. These changes will require at least a couple of decades to bear fruit. But they are well worth the effort because the survival of American Civilization, and indeed the broader Western Civilization, is at stake.

Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero