I’ve blogged in the past that the recent trend for journalists to engage in political fact checking amounts to a type of power play. A guest column by Mike Deupree in Iowa’s The Register yesterday helped inspire me to sharpen the point.
“At some point,” writes Deupree, “some journalists — probably frustrated because readers weren’t making the decisions the journalists thought they should be making — decided readers needed to be told not only what was said, but whether to believe it. Before you can say ‘I never had sex with that woman,’ just about every news medium had its own truth squad.”
Deupree makes some terrific observations in his column. His theory about why journalists glommed onto fact checking fits very well with my hypothesis.
Journalists who see themselves as an essential part of a healthy democracy continue to dominate print journalism. Approximately since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, many journalists tend to do their work with a zeal somewhat comparable to members of a sacred order.
Take a sacred order and threaten its existence and Armageddon looms.
Thanks mostly to the Internet, print journalism finds itself in crisis. Journalists need jobs, of course. And even more importantly there’s a democracy to save. So thoughtful journalists have tried dozens of methods for preserving their craft while at the same time saving the world for democracy.
Journalism informs the electorate, and an informed electorate performs the key essential role in a democracy. Therefore, journalists are responsible for informing people. Journalists need to solve the problem of too much information by steering people away from bad information and toward the good information.
Deupree implicitly identifies the problem:
The phenomenon known as fact-checking is relatively new. Editors and reporters once felt their job was to report what a politician said. They checked their facts, but the goal was to ensure the accuracy of their reporting, not the veracity of the speech they were reporting. That was left to the politician’s opponent, who also would be quoted fairly and completely. Thus informed, readers could decide who was right.
The pre-Watergate generation of journalists tended to follow the style Deupree describes above. They reported what other people said. The fact checking journalist of today takes on a much more ambitious role. Today’s journalist often tells you not only what political position agrees most with the facts but also, as Glenn Greenwald noted at Salon, which experts shall definitively settle various questions.
Despite a considerable rise in the education level of the average print journalist, journalists as a group remain unqualified to decide between disagreeing expert sources. It’s worrisome if large numbers of journalists think otherwise.
The information explosion does present a challenge to democracy. But making journalists the gatekeepers for information is not a viable solution.
Part of the solution?
Journalists can solve part of the information problem by doing good, old-fashioned journalism intelligently and responsibly just as Deupree described it. And, lest I betray my identity as a hypocrite, there are times when a person decently equipped with general knowledge may obtain insights hidden from the knowledge specialist. The former needs to keep in mind their continual disadvantage in comparison to the expert. Under that condition they have a prayer of occasionally challenging the expert without suffering embarrassment.