Two recent articles from the New York Times have been reporting about the rise of the Intellectual Dark Web, and how it is largely a reaction against excesses of Progressives on the extreme Left. This “dark web” is a loosely-affiliated group of free thinkers and iconoclasts from across the political spectrum – Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, etc. – who are breaking with the current mainstream Cultural Narrative, political correctness, social justice, cultural Marxism, and the like. A sort of “red pill” liberal awakening, to use the metaphor.
What is really interesting about the Intellectual Dark Web phenomenon is how it traces its roots to a growing sense of hegemony of the progressive/SJW/feminist narrative in the media. That perhaps there is a lack of objectivity in current news reporting. That perhaps we are not getting the whole story.
Of course, journalists aren’t held to any ethical standard of objectivity.
To be fair, the national Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) does have a Code of Ethics, but that list is mostly concerned with dealing with sources, accuracy, and fact-checking. There is one item about “clearly labeling advocacy and commentary”, i.e. opinion, but it is sparse on any detail. The Wikipedia page on journalistic ethics doesn’t even mention it.
The problem here is not about sources or fact-checking – it is that journalists are infusing what are supposed to be objective news articles with snippets of their own opinions and viewpoints. The line between an opinion piece and actual hard news is blurred. Rather than an unbiased report on the facts, and letting the reader make their own assessment.
This is a failure of modern journalism.
Much like scientists, where Science’s search for the truth depends on the objectivity of its practitioners, modern liberal democracy depends on its citizens getting objective information from its journalists and news media. A failure to do so isn’t just a matter of professional or personal choice … it is a failure to adhere the ethical responsibilities that being a journalist in a free liberal society entails. That is a vital role.
Yet that is not being taught rigorously enough to journalism students. It is (as pointed out above) barely mentioned in the codes of ethics of various journalist professional societies. An afterthought at best.
The founding fathers however knew how vital the role was … it is why they enshrined a free press in the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution. A free press is a fundamental property of classical liberalism.
As such I posit this fact: much like a medical doctor is ascribed to certain ethical conduct by the Hippocratic Oath, so should a journalist in a liberal democratic society should be held to similar standards. The health of the patient, or in this case the society, comes before any personal or professional desires they may have, or viewpoints they may hold. They are honor bound to do what is best for the patient/society.
Yet, negative reporting about Trump is occurring at twice the rate of any previous president, even more than the at-the-time hated republican president George W. Bush, according to a Pew study. Which regardless of your stance on Trump, is clearly problematic for several reasons from an objectivity standpoint.
And that lack of objectivity, that lack of journalistic ethics, has negative consequences for liberal societies.
It was the end of a controversial Presidential Election year in the United States. A dark horse “outsider” candidate but who had some celebrity fame won. The Republican Party was bitterly divided. A major economic crisis a few years prior resulted from the popping of an economic bubble, and the failing of several iconic financial companies. A piece of massive domestic economic legislation that would fundamentally alter America was hotly debated, some wanting to push further others to repeal. Immigration issues were coming to the forefront, with proposals to ban people of certain ethnicities or from certain countries.
Do you know what I am describing? Trump and the 2016 election?
No not quite. I am actually describing the U.S. presidential election of 1880, that of James Garfield (see wiki for more).
The funny thing about the current political climate in the United States and much of the modern West, is that this has all happened before. There are many, many similarities (and differences) between 1880 and 2016.
Garfield was a controversial candidate, with “unconventional” ideas that split the Republican party. Civil Service Reform, along with the “Greenback Issue” were the major domestic issues of the day roiling the United States, a la “Obamacare” of modern times. In the still heavily agrarian farming-based economy of the United States during that time, those issues had major implications for the average American’s economic well-being. Circulation of such liquid “Greenbacks” during the decade prior had led to massive speculation on land, an economic bubble, and eventually the Economic Crisis of 1873. One of the major financial houses in the United States, Jay Cooke and Co, failed. The resulting recession lingered for over a decade. At the same time, anti-immigrant sentiment had been boiling over post Civil War. People from certain countries, such as Chinese via the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were effectively banned from immigrating to the U.S.
Ironically, it was during this same time period late 1800s post Civil War that American news media saw the rise of the Muckrakers and Yellow Journalism. Playing their role in the cycle of panics and divisive-ness. Coincidence, I think not. A lesson to be learned about the consequences for a liberal democracy from a lack of journalistic ethics.
- Any actual news item (not an opinion piece or editorial) should maintain as much objectivity as possible. The journalist’s particular viewpoints, political or otherwise, have no place in it. Now obviously complete objectivity is impossible, but much like science, objectivity is the goal.
- Any editorial or opinion piece should be clearly labeled as such. Editorializing outside of such pieces should not be tolerated.
Neither of these should be an afterthought … they should lay at the core of standards for journalistic ethics. A “Hippocratic oath” if you will for journalism. If journalists want to complain about “attacks on the free press”, then it is incumbent upon themselves to ensure they are adhering to their own ethical responsibilities … as well as living up to their vital role in a liberal society.
Otherwise, they have no one to blame but themselves.