I have been writing this column for some twenty years now, and though I have gotten comfortable with being dubbed a journalist, throughout all that time, I have never really delved into the epistemological underpinnings of what has become a controversial occupation. In recent decades, the “fourth estate” as journalism is often referred to by politicians and academics, has come under attack and lost some of its stature and credibility. Being a journalist used to be a respected and trusted profession, yet a number of developments, some political and some technological, have seen a steady erosion in that trust.
Any analysis of this issue must begin with an understanding of the role of a free press in a democratic society. Under democratic systems of government, an independent press serves the vital function of holding elected officials accountable for what they do. In addition they serve to educate the broader public on the issues of the day, the facts behind them, and the range of ideas and opinions of contending or opposing sides of any debate on them.
Of course, this holds true of democracies only, as in other more authoritarian or single party forms of government, there usually is no free or independent press, and hence no accountability or fact based discussion of issues. In those scenarios, the press and media are tightly controlled by the government, and the public only gets to be exposed to the “truth” that the authorities want them to see. Journalism in those countries is no longer journalism, but propaganda, or a manufactured “truth” rather than a factual truth. A good example is what purports to be “news reporting” in tightly controlled Russia, where the media supports the Putin claims that Ukraine is being run by “drug-addicted Nazis” as being true. It is not hard to see that this is propaganda and not journalism.
What has been both interesting as well as disturbing over the past decade, has been the blurring of the line between journalism and propaganda in the supposed leading democracy in the western world, namely the U.S. What we have seen is the significant growth of very biased ultra right wing media. FOX News is a prime example of this. It parrots the absurd claims of former President Trump and his fundamentalist supporters and gives credibility to conspiracies and manufactured “alternate facts”. This is not journalism, but propaganda. The monied power brokers that create and support this propaganda are no doubt well aware that there is no factual basis behind what they report, but they do it anyway to achieve their dubious political aims. They rely on the credulity and naivete of ideologically compromised news consumers that are not looking for truth, but simply confirmation of their biases, prejudices and uninformed opinions.
This trend has been aided and abetted as mentioned earlier by technological and political developments of the past several decades. Technologically we have seen the exponential growth of internet based media which has given a wide platform for crackpots of all kinds to expose their half-baked ideas and conspiracy theories to a wide audience, both nationally and globally. Unfortunately most people do not take the trouble any more to do proper research, or verify news sources, and all too often accept nonsense as being truth.
Recent political developments in the U.S. have also contributed to the erosion of true, fact-based journalism. The Republican party has been ideologically taken over by right-wing extremists for whom truth and democracy have been sacrificed at the altar of gaining and keeping power. A party that until several decades ago was fairly progressive albeit fiscally conservative, has become a reactionary political force, supporting a buffoon like Trump and supporting his delusions and conspiracies. They are aided and abetted by right-wing media that have sacrificed objectivity and integrity in favor of currying the favour of a flawed, and likely mentally deranged egomaniac. They have created a false equivalency between responsible journalistic entities such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN on the one side, and FOX news and its imitators on the other.
That is not to say that long-established media icons like the Washington Post are not without their biases, but they at least take great efforts to insure that what they report is factual and verifiable. The same cannot be said of FOX News, the darling of the Republican right.
By the same token, I make no claims of being completely unbiased or ideologically neutral in what I write. However, I do engage as much as possible in proper due diligence to try and ensure that what I write is true and factual, and when I state my own personal opinion, I do so overtly, and do not try to disguise opinion as being fact.