Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 7:30 pm

UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media: $25 million — for a mission or a mess of pottage?


I’m not going to lie: The naming gift of $25 million to my alma mater, the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, got my attention. Even for UNC, this is a big gift, something to celebrate, and so much more so for the j-school, with its invaluable mission of public service. Dean Susan King and the faculty, staff, students and alumni should be very proud. The school will be known henceforth as the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Before today I had never heard of the donor, Walter Hussman Jr., chairman of WEHCO Media Inc., which owns newspapers, cable television systems, and magazines in a number of states. I had, however, heard of the work of some of the WEHCO newspapers, notably the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To my knowledge and that of some friends in those markets, those papers have tried to maintain credible news coverage at a time when creditors and banksters have been forcing a lot of other papers to eat their seed corn and worse. So, maybe he really understands the value of aggressive accountability journalism and its indispensability in a constitutional republic and intends to help the j-school better teach students how to carry out that mission.

He says his top goal is “restoring the bond of trust between media and the public,” and he says he believes that the way to do that is to abide by the “core values” that undergird, and are printed daily in, his newspapers. They are:

Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias.

Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium, and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.

To provide the most complete report, a news organization must not just cover the news, but uncover it. It must follow the story wherever it leads, regardless of any preconceived ideas on what might be most newsworthy.

The pursuit of truth is a noble goal of journalism. But the truth is not always apparent or known immediately. Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.

When a newspaper delivers both news and opinions, the impartiality and credibility of the news organization can be questioned. To minimize this as much as possible there needs to be a sharp and clear distinction between news and opinion, both to those providing and consuming the news.

Sounds nice, right? Well, as always, the devil is in the details.

Devil the first: “Objectivity” is a myth; true objectivity is rarer than true love. The best a journalist can do is to be aware of his/her own biases and test them whenever possible.

Devil the second: “Impartiality” has remained, for decades too long, an imperfect goal because in so many cases “impartiality” has been interpreted as the need to provide a platform for nonsense. Pointing out that gravity is “only a theory,” while true, isn’t impartial: If you step off the ledge, you’re going to fall to your death no matter what you think of that theory. Pointing that out not only does not make one partial; it fulfills the journalist’s duty to the reader not only to produce accurate journalism but also to filter out dangerous bullshit. (This Twitter thread, which I just happened upon today, is a fine example of the latter.)

Accordingly, devil the third: Impartiality is NOT the greatest source of credibility. Truth-telling, without fear and particularly in the face of hostile opposition, is the greatest source of credibility. When your reporting accurately reflects people’s lived, experienced realities, that is when you are seen as credible. This is particularly crucial for journalists who report on the communities in which they live; if they get something wrong, they’re  likely to hear about it, quite possibly live and in concert.

Which brings us to devil the fourth: Hussman says that truth is “not always apparent or immediately known.” Two responses to that: 1) Yeah, sometimes it is. Frequently, it is. It only seems like it isn’t because this era is rife with grifters who will blithely say to journalists and the public alike, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” Journalists must not ever allow themselves to be misled or intimidated by them. 2) A good journalist will always tell readers not only what he/she knows but also what he/she does not know but needs, or has tried unsuccessfully, to find out. He/she might even enlist the public’s help in getting it.

Devil the fifth: Hussman says, “Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.” Well, no; not all possible verifiable facts are relevant. But grifters have spent decades convincing the American public, and way too large a segment of American journalism, that they are; thus the rise of the tu quoque logical fallacy known as “whataboutism.”  Journalists do not owe their readers all the facts; rather, they owe their readers contextual accuracy and must ensure not only that their facts are accurate and complete but also that the context in which they place those facts accurately reflects the conditions in which those facts occur.

Devil the sixth: Hussman insists on keeping a sharp and clear distinction at all times between news and opinion, “both to those providing and consuming the news.” In general that is true, but it is not a universal truth. Indeed, it ignores the strong tradition in the past half-century or so of advocacy journalism. For just one example, no one ever will accuse the late Hunter S. Thompson of keeping a sharp and clear distinction at all times between news and opinion, but Nixon scholars still read Thompson 50 years after Nixon took office and will still be reading Thompson 100 years after Nixon died. Such journalism is hard to pull off well, particularly for new journalists, but as long as journalists are forthcoming with their readers about their sources, methods, and motivations, readers of good will will find their reports credible even if they don’t agree with the message. (And for readers who lack good will? Nothing a journalist can do will ever be enough to convince them. Give up on them.)

Which brings us to devil the last: Perhaps I am wrong, but I fear it is but a short step from Hussman’s “core values” to the kind of journalistic silence that is ethically insupportable. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that the people — and not just working journalists, but all of us — are to use our powers of expression to hold the powerful to account for their actions. But for too many people in and outside of journalism, objectivity too often means silence, even when silence is assent. Any news outlet that remains silent in the face of attempts to deny human beings their human rights, to convert our country to fascism, to lead us down the road to genocide, to ignore the apocalyptic climate change that likely will destroy much of civilization, is intellectually exhausted, morally bankrupt, and unworthy of the freedoms and powers granted it by the Framers.

If Hussman has given a second’s thought to the media ecosystem in which we now live — one that blurs news and entertainment, one that skews heavily toward the perspectives of the wealthy, one in which politicians and media figures alike happily work to destroy the notion of objective reality in which Hussman places such value, one in which news-media officers are perfectly happy to mislead the public to rob that same public and damage our democratic underpinnings — his values do not reflect it. Sure, pointing a live TV camera at a Donald Trump and letting him rant for an hour is “impartial” and “objective,” but it’s awful journalism. Recall what CBS CEO Les Moonves said in 2016 of his network’s coverage of then-presidential candidate Trump, which ran long on live shots of Trump’s racist, fact-free ravings without any sort of challenge or attempt to contextualize: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

We live in an era in which our own intelligence services believe that the Oval Office is occupied by an agent of a hostile foreign power. We live in an era in which $27 trillion in proven carbon resources remain in the ground, with industry bribing the government to be able to monetize every last bit and lying to the public without consequences about the likely damages. We live in an era in which actual Holocaust survivors, as well as Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, and most Holocaust experts, believe that not only are we on the same road Nazi Germany traveled, we are farther down it than most people understand. Our journalism has a constitutional duty to be more than equal to those challenges.

Does Hussman intend to see to it that the journalists and academicians he employs and the students his money helps train will not only be truthful, fair and accurate, but also be morally and ethically upright — and that they will push their respective bosses, instructors, students, and institutions to be as well?

If so, then his $25 million gift will end up being worth far more than that. But as they say, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.

 

 

 

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