I direct a journalism school known for its support of the First Amendment, which we celebrate annually with speeches and case studies. As such, I am a source on free press issues. Reporters contact me about such cases as the Ward Churchill fiasco at the University of Colorado, asking if his “little Eichmanns” depiction of 9/11 victims is protected speech -- perhaps speech that should protected by me. I deflect those calls, believing such controversies are less about free speech and more about a media culture that values opinion more than fact.
There are many reasons for this, but nearly all point to new technology and profit margin. For starters, opinion costs less to disseminate than fact and can be aligned with a target market. Media chains that care more about revenue than reputation have purchased outlets from families that had safeguarded rights in hometowns for generations. Computerization and downsizing of newsrooms deleted reporters from the scene so that they became less visible and therefore, vital. Meanwhile communication technology became affordable so that consumers had in their palms the power to broadcast or publish at will.
The news industry has changed so much, so quickly. To be sure, some of that change has been refreshing and long in coming. The Internet, and blogging in particular, have created digital dialogues about media, challenging corporate business as usual. But the promise of technology -- that it would build social networks, democratize news and generally enhance information in two-way flows -- has always hinged on the presumption of readily available and verifiable information.
What are the consequences, not only for media, but for academe, when opinion displaces fact?
The Social Idea
I worked as a correspondent and state editor for United Press International in the 1970s. Members of my generation built on the Edward R. Murrow legacy of intermingling fact with experience. Murrow, an original "embedded" journalist, went on a World War II bombing mission over Germany, reporting for CBS radio network. According to Murrow’s code of ethics, reality was the observed state of people and the world. In other words he thought reporters had to be on the scene to report fact reliably. Practicing that, he brought the war in Europe to America, just as my generation brought home another war with a different outcome -- the war in Vietnam.
Because universities dealt with fact, they played a role in the social protests of that era. Although organizations and movements such as Students for a Democractic Society (led by student editor Tom Hayden at Michigan) and Free Speech (University of California-Berkeley) began in the early to mid 1960s, they came together and spurred protests after news coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In 1970, coverage of the invasion of Cambodia sparked a protest at Kent State University that killed four students and injured eight. More protests followed nationwide with two more students killed at Jackson State University. Hundreds of colleges and universities shut down as students went on strike, with subsequent protests often tied to a specific news event. While those protests were political, they were usually in response to factual reporting. Lest we forget, 63 journalists died covering the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. More recently, 25 journalists died in 2004 alone covering the war in Iraq. One has to ask oneself why that fact alone is scarcely known on college campuses.
Journalists fed Vietnam-era protests simply by reporting fact in a culture that still appreciated its power. We differed from Murrow-era journalists, our mentors, relying less on emotion and more on anonymous sources, for which we caught (and still catch) hell, filing reports in a detached, impartial voice. We practiced objectivity, realizing it could not be fully attained but amassing factual fragments so that a discernable mosaic could emerge.
We tried to see the world as it was, not as we wished it were.
That definition is derived from the British poet Matthew Arnold, who wrote about "genuine scientific passion" in the 1869 essay, “Culture and Anarchy.” Arnold maintained that people who saw things as they were also apprehended a culture beyond the consciousness of science -- a moral culture, informed by conscience. This, Arnold wrote, was the "social idea" that made such people "the true apostles of equality" who "have a passion for diffusing, for making prevail … from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time."
I read “Culture and Anarchy” during the adversary days of the Watergate era. It seemed an appropriate title. Doing so I understood the role of journalism in promoting the “social idea.” The most popular television news show then was “60 Minutes,” on Murrow’s old network, CBS. The show had a novel segment called “Point/Counterpoint.” The most heated segments featured liberal Shana Alexander against conservative James J. Kilpatrick.
Their debates heralded a hitherto unexplored news phenomenon in which sources could pit one constellation of facts against an opposing constellation. This media milieu existed well into the 1990s, diluting the previous culture of fact and transforming it into one of factoid (partial/pseudo-fact). But fact maintained some power.
“Point/Counterpoint” soon changed that. Keep in mind that this segment was so startling at the time that a new satire show, “Saturday Night Live,” ridiculed it regularly with Jane Curtin assailing the viewpoint of Dan Aykroyd who, invariably, would respond, “Jane, you ignorant …” -- and then he said a word that a savvy source, knowing today’s opinionated media, would not tell a reporter, if sharing this anecdote, fully aware of free speech rights, cognizant that the omitted word is a matter of record and also a matter of fact. This is not political correctness but what occurs in a culture of knee-jerk opinions. Responsible people, or people responsible for others, are aware of that culture and wary about adding their informed voices to the social debate, leaving that to those who would seek celebrity or who would entertain or worse, strike fear and outrage in others.
Fear and outrage are byproducts of an uninformed society. Perhaps that is why Americans increasingly embrace entertainment. James Howard Kunstler in his prescient 1996 book Home from Nowhere maintains that no other society but ours has been so preoccupied with instantaneous make-believe and on-demand fantasy. Because we fear so much, Kunstler writes, “we must keep the TVs turned on at all waking hours and at very high volume.” To escape fear, we amuse ourselves to death -- a phrase associated with a 1985 book by the great communication scholar, Neil Postman, who died in 2003, although many, perhaps ones reading this column, were not informed about the fact of his passing.
Just Another Viewpoint
When families who lost relatives in the 9/11 attacks were still grieving, Ward Churchill, the Colorado professor, was comparing their loved ones to “little Eichmanns.” His inflammatory essay lay dormant on the Internet until only recently. The controversy that arose because of Churchill’s opinions became so intense that Elizabeth Hoffman, president at Colorado, announced her resignation amid the media clamor. To be sure, Hoffmann was dealing with other controversies at the time, but coverage of Churchill became so intense that it might have contributed to that resignation.
A few years ago I could have invited Ward Churchill to Ames, Iowa, during a First Amendment event for a debate about his views. To do so now would assemble a media circus, bringing controversy to my journalism school. And what good would my counterpoint to his opinions accomplish, however factual I could make such an argument, when my invitation and my motive for making it, would be the news rather than the substance of any rebuttal?
In the new media environment, fact -- even all-inclusive, verifiable, comprehensive fact -- is seen as just another viewpoint, just another opinion in the menu of fame on demand facilitated by Internet and cable television. So when a professor writes an essay (or a phrase in that essay) so sensational that it sparks a nationwide debate about free speech or academic freedom, journalists are missing the point. Such controversies, shaped by media practice, merely amuse the opinionated public.
Case in point: Fox’s "American Idol" reportedly inspired 500 million votes this season, quadrupling the number of ballots cast in the last U.S. presidential election. True, many viewers voted more than once for favorite contestants, but that only documents the culture of opinion, especially popular with younger viewers.
David Mindich, author of Just the Facts and Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News, says journalists have to compete now with shows like “Fear Factor” and “Friends” and so are overemphasizing humor, conflict and sex. Mindich, chair of the journalism and mass communication department at Saint Michael’s College, believes that the power of fact has diminished in this media universe. “One of the most powerful things about journalism itself is that it can communicate to a large audience and then we can have discussions about facts and where the facts bring us; but if we no longer are paying attention, then the facts don’t have the same weight. In the absence of fact opinion becomes more powerful. It’s not only the journalists themselves; it’s the culture apart from the news that has abandoned political discourse based on commonly agreed upon facts.”
In our day, points and counterpoints may be passionate but often also uninformed and usually accusatory. Who wants to participate in a media spectacle where audience and other sources, rather than the reporters, instinctively go for the jugular? Too often in this environment, the only people willing to speak out -- to contribute to the social debate -- are those with special interests or with nothing to lose and celebrity to gain.
The New Silent Majority
Sources who can explain the complex issues of our era, including biotechnology and bioterrorism, often opt out of the social debate. This includes scientists at our best universities. They see the media world as it is … and so have refrained from commenting on it. Increasingly the new silent majority will not go public with their facts or informed perspectives because, they realize, they will be pilloried for doing so by the omnipresent fear-mongers and sensationalists who provide a diet of conflict and provocation in the media.
And that creates a crisis for the First Amendment, which exists because the founders believed that truth would rise to the top -- providing people could read. That is also why education is associated with free speech and why, for generations, equal access to education has been an issue in our country and continues to be in our time. Education and information are requisite in a republic where we elect our representatives; to downsize or cut allocations for either puts the country at risk. Society is experiencing the consequences of cuts to the classroom and the newsroom, and we are getting the governments that we deserve, including blue vs. red states in a divided, point/counterpoint electorate.
What will become of journalism in this perplexing milieu? What happens when profit rather than truth rises to the top? According to David Mindich, “When profit trumps truth, journalism values are diluted, and then people start to wonder about the value of journalism in the first place.” Without facts, he says, people "start to forget the purpose of the First Amendment and then that, in turn, weakens journalism, and it’s a downward spiral from there."
The only one way to stop the spiral is through re-investment in journalism and education. As for me, a journalism educator, my highest priority is training students for the media environment that used to exist, the one concerned about fact holding government accountable — no matter what the cost. Sooner or later, there will be a place again for fact-gathering journalists. There will be a tipping point when profit plummets for lack of newsroom personnel and technology fails to provide the fix. That day is coming quickly for newspapers publishers, in particular, who are struggling to compete online without realizing there are no competitors on front doors and welcome mats of American homes, their erstwhile domain. They will realize that the best way to attract new readers is to hire more reporters and place them where citizens can see them on the scene as witness, disseminating verifiable truths of the day.