“This is an apple,” claims a CNN advertisement while showing what is ostensibly a red apple. It goes on to warn that some might want to tell you that it’s a banana, but in the end facts are facts: this fruit is an apple. This commercial is necessary, according to CNN, because of the threat of fake news, which tells lies on a mass scale and abuses the notion of truth. It’s up to apparently noble, honorable press organizations like CNN to call out and combat fake news with “the Truth.”
The commercial is also a subtle dig at CNN’s friend-turned-nemesis Donald Trump, the apparent embodiment of fake news. But critics also observe that when Trump launched his campaign to be elected president of the United States, it was CNN that gave him hundreds of hours of free coverage, with even other mainstream outlets such as The Washington Post complaining about how unfiltered and uncritical the channel’s reporting was. By its own admission, CNN saw a revenue bonanza: as the head of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker crowed, Trump was a “ratings machine.” (Los Angeles Times) Trump repaid the network by blasting them as purveyors of fake news; he tweeted a video clip of himself bodyslamming a man whose head had been digitally replaced with the CNN logo, and to the delight of his voting base, he bullied the channel to such a degree that CNN’s executives have resorted to fighting the White House’s onslaught with fruit.
The Frankenstein’s monster of fake news didn’t pop up ex nihilo. In a truly healthy media and online environment in which everyone is truly informed by quality information about the real causes and effects of contemporary crises, this phenomenon would never have gained momentum. On the contrary, the culture of fake news has been incubated over a period of decades by the very outlets we are supposed to trust.
Our international, mostly Anglophone, media is in danger of losing its way. It urgently needs new modes of relating to the world it covers, which Buddhist values can help inform.
On the front of wisdom (prajna), editors and reporters must learn not to equal insight with an abstract notion of objectivity. On the front of compassion (karuna), we need to honestly explore what coverage is of significance to the human condition; what is truly worthwhile journalism. On the whole, we need to “re-dignify” the fourth estate (news media, press) so that journalists can regain public trust and reclaim their role as civic leaders with a moral, and yes, even spiritual purpose.
Wisdom: believe in “informed conviction”
One of English-language journalism’s greatest blind spots has been its (often unconscious) pretension to objectivity. It stands above the fray and reports, only on “the facts.” While facts in the conventional world certainly need to be agreed on for convenience’s sake (we find ourselves in a similar situation with words concerning the self like “I” and “mine” even though the self doesn’t exist), very powerful mainstream newspapers, channels, or websites now claim objectivity, but ironically often at the expense of being correct. Being objective does not necessarily mean being correct.
Outlets of varying political leanings alike are guilty of the pretense of objectivity while in reality they have taken a (political) stance which colors their output. Fox News’ “fair and balanced” motto is rightly the subject of comedy and parody, but was The New York Times a sober assessor of reality when it fired an anti-war reporter for going against its editorial line on the Iraq War of 2003 (the newspaper was pro-invasion)? Has the Grey Lady, or her British counterparts, been effective arbiters of truth with regard to foreign intervention in Libya, Syria, or Yemen?
The good news is that “objectivity” wasn’t always the Holy Grail of reporting. Historical clippings of newspapers of almost any time period in which the press has existed, from coverage of Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War to the clashing opinions of foreign correspondents during China’s Xinhai Revolution of 1911, betray blatantly their editorial biases. But there was a beauty to such biases: the proprietors and their editors held them because they truly thought their publication would benefit society by pushing for a certain cause or result. Senior journalists, correspondents, and reporters all hunted for facts, of course, but seasoned editors knew that true insight must be gleaned from the facts and statistics. Editorials exist to rally readers behind the publication’s opinion on certain issues that the publication deems important for its readers to know.
“Informed conviction” is far better as a form of public discourse than pretentious objectivity, and will offer many more insights that inform the public better than the latter.
Compassion: cover issues of meaning to the human condition
Mainstream media—be it print, online, or TV—are not free from the fake news charge, or at least the charge of covering all the wrong things and few of the real issues. Who can forget CNN’s speculative non-stories such as whether a black hole might have been responsible for the disappearance of flight MH370 in 2014? Meanwhile, American media coverage of climate change is terrible. In 2016, major cable outlets aired a combined 50 minutes of climate coverage on their evening and Sunday news programs, 96 minutes less (a drop of about 66 per cent) than in 2015. (Media Matters) Banal “human interest” stories like rescued kittens and puppies take precedence over serious reporting on the illicit animal trade and black market for endangered species. If one were using purely Buddhist criteria to judge the authenticity of today’s media coverage, almost all major channels would be failing.
Celebrity gossip magazines and rumors of private sex lives might attract clicks and revenue, but they hardly matter to what one might call the public good. Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, gave a relatively solid speech on the need for media organizations to define their values:
This kind of journalism, which champions the public interest, requires a deep understanding of the changes taking place, so we will continually find the best ways to listen to people, even—perhaps especially—those who don’t read us. . . . Of course, in a serious age, the appetite for thoughtful, clever features beyond the news is possibly greater than ever. Our readers want to be nourished—by meaningful journalism about technology, economics, science, the arts—not fattened up with junk. They want useful, enjoyable reporting on how we live now, spotting trends, catching the mood, understanding what people are talking about—life-affirming, inspiring, challenging. We can be fun, and we must be funny, but it must always have a point, laughing with our audience, never at them. Their attention is not a commodity to be exploited and sold. (The Guardian)
On this front, Viner is right. Meaningful stories and healthy readerships aren’t mutually exclusive. Why do publications exist? For what reason do they disseminate information and opinion? Do human interest stories contribute to a more compassionate and gentle society? If one doesn’t like the honest answer, then perhaps serious thinking is needed.
Let’s start now
Here, we’ve explored how far the press has fallen. However, our message is one of almost naïve hope. We believe in nothing less than the potential nobility, even spirituality, of the journalistic profession. However, the only way to regain this sense of mission is to be dignified. We need to be aware that there is no pure neutrality and that press organizations present the world in a certain way through its reporting and opinion making to reinforce a moral purpose. Our agenda, without being unbalanced and biased (lest we lose fact-checking rigor), should unashamedly support a spiritual, political, or philosophical outlook or worldview.
Editors, reporters, correspondents, columnists, and commentators all share the privilege of acting as mediators of information and the thirst of the public to know about things and act on them. We must have the courage to say “no” to cynicism and “yes” to meaning: after all, isn’t that what journalists do—make meaning out of what affects us all and tell the story of the human condition?
Jeff Zucker’s singular role in promoting Donald Trump’s rise (The Washington Post)
Trump can thank the ‘fake media’ for his presidency (Los Angeles Times)
How Broadcast Networks Covered Climate Change In 2016 (Media Matters)
A mission for journalism in a time of crisis (The Guardian)
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