When I was beginning my career as a journalist, I strove to be as objective as possible. It was not only a personal goal, but it was always a goal of the newspapers for which I wrote.
With the rise of the internet, blogging, social media, political tribalism, rants and endless fragmentation, objectivity seems to have been abandoned as a silly cultural artifact of a bygone era. That’s not good.
I can remember debating in college whether objectivity was achievable. Of course it isn’t. Perfection is never achievable. But it should still be pursued as an admirable goal.
Before the rise of the internet, IP tracking and the ability to essentially spy on people as they browse, objectivity made good business sense.
Mass media needed masses. The more people who read the paper or watched the TV meant more eyeballs for advertisers. Alienating one group or the other wasn’t good business. They might quit subscribing or watching, limiting the effectiveness of the medium as an advertising vehicle.
But the Internet, or specifically, IP tracking, turned that concept on its head. IP stands for “internet protocol.” It’s a way of tracking everybody who browses the web.
Once you can track someone, you can compile information on which websites they go to and what they do there. After a short period of time, you can create a detailed profile of a person based on this information.
Internet advocates say IP addresses are not linked to specific people, but that’s a bunch a hooey. There are big profitable companies that do nothing but link IP addresses to specific individuals. They not only know what you do on the web, they know your name, address and phone number. And a lot, lot more. In fact, they know everything about you.
There are Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that purport to hide your identify, but many of these have been co-opted by the rich Big Data companies they claim to protect us from.
As a result of IP address tracking technology, mass media is no longer necessary to deliver a mass advertising message. You can deliver the same advertising message to a person on a right-wing website and also a person on a left-wing website at the same time. Objectivity is no longer good business.
In fact, the opposite is true. By feeding into a person’s affinities and desires, you can get better engagement. Right wing people get deeper and deeper into their right wing websites. Left wing people get deeper and deeper into their left wing websites. More engagement means more eyeballs. More eyeballs mean more advertising clout.
This is an unintended consequence of the Internet. It is causing not just the loss of journalistic objectivity. It is challenging the political fabric and cohesion of our culture. We are reverting to base tribalism.
Into this virile mix, add the Congressional exemption from libel and slander laws awarded to Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. No media companies in the history of the world have ever been given an exemption from these 1,000-year-old common laws.
Up until this exemption, awarded in 1996, any publishing company was responsible for the accuracy and legitimacy of their content. If they slandered someone through their publishing platform, they could be sued. It kept media companies honest.
The Northside Sun is responsible for the contents of a letter to the editor. As a result, my company has to carry expensive libel insurance. But Facebook is not responsible for the posts around which they sell advertising. It’s a travesty that has created a monster. It is undermining our nation.
Absolute rumors and lies can be posted on Facebook, go viral and destroy a person’s reputation, and Facebook cannot be sued. Same with Twitter and Google search results.
Salacious rumors and distorted scandals are always more interesting than objective news and balanced reporting, so we are inundated with fake news. China and Russia have seen what an enormous opportunity this creates to sow discord, weaken the dollar and undermine their greatest adversary.
Sadly, most Americans don’t even know what’s going on and how the rioting in the streets is a direct result from Congress playing favorites with social media.
In the rattle of this battle, the Northside Sun and Emmerich Newspapers will stand firm and continue to report as objectively as possible.
If there is one thing I have learned in my career in journalism, there are always two sides to any story. Gotcha’ journalism has no place in our company. We don’t try to vilify. We try to explain, report and illuminate as fairly, objectively as possible. We trust this will increase understanding and lead to a better society. This often leads to our going against the media herd and group think, as we try to let readers know things are never as simple or one-sided as they seem.
The current scandal with Nancy New and her non-profits come to mind, but I could list hundreds more.
New is accused of “stealing” millions in federal money under a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
In reality, federal law allows great discretion in how this money is spent. It can be spent on anything that “helps needy families achieve self sufficiency.” That’s infinitely broad.
New’s company became a key player in getting this federal money and funding a variety of non-profit ventures, many of which substantially diverged from “temporary assistance to needy families.” But is this “stealing” as New is accused of again and again in the media? Is she to blame or are the overly broad federal regulations to blame?
We simply don’t know. That’s why we have trials, so the truth can come out in a controlled environment. Yet Nancy New and many others have already been tried and convicted in the media. Lots of eyeballs, Lots of ad dollars.
That is not objectivity. No doubt, Nancy New “stealing” is far more savory than an analysis of overly vague federal statutes.