To a very considerable extent the media of mass communications in a given country reflect the political, economic, and social climate in which they flourish. That is the reason ours differ from the British and French, or the Russian and Chinese. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. And our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late. ¶ … I do not advocate that we turn television into a twenty-seven-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. … This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.
These are not ticky-tack fouls. In the world of publishing and public speaking, quotes are evidence. Quotes are to journalism what data are to science. If they’re not real, they’re irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how juicy and revealing they are if they never happened. Fabrication is the cardinal sin of publishing.
In the conduct of my newspaper I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse, which is of late years become so disgraceful to our country. Whenever I was solicited to insert anything of that kind and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press — and that a newspaper was like a stage-coach, in which any one who would pay had a right to a place — my answer was that I would print the piece separately if desired, and the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I would not take upon me to spread his detraction, and that having contracted with my subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I could not fill their papers with private altercation, in which they had no concern, without doing them manifest injustice. Now many of our printers make no scruple of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of duels; and are, moreover, so indiscreet as to print scurrilous reflections on the government of neighboring States, and even on the conduct of our best national allies, which may be attended with the most pernicious consequences. These things I mention as a caution to young printers, and that they may be encouraged not to pollute their presses and disgrace their profession by such infamous practices, but refuse steadily; as they may see by my example that such a course of conduct will not on the whole be injurious to their interests.
The problems include limited access to mass media outlets afforded to some voices in our political process; “sound bite” journalism that covers campaign strategy more than policy pronouncements and emphasizes conflict over consensus; and overreliance on the medium of television, the logic of which makes politics “an activity of style over substance, image over reality, melodrama over analysis, belief over knowing, awareness over understanding.” The primary cause of these problems, [Robert] Denton argues, lies in “contemporary news values.” As a business, the media must maintain high circulation (or ratings) in order to make a profit by selling advertising. The incentive to make the news entertaining is overwhelming. But information that is most useful in a democratic system may often be subtle and complex — boring, to some.
The creation-evolution controversy is one of those subjects that has become standardized in the press. I sometimes have the impression that journalists just click on a “bash creationism” macro in their word processors and sit back while the printer pours out a string of cliches: the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo, the Scopes trial in 1925 should have settled this matter, the Bible is not a scientific textbook, scientists agree that “evolution has occurred,” mainstream religious leaders say that God and evolution are compatible, and the country will fall into ruin if evolution is not emphasized in the schools. Even the feeble witticisms are standardized, as columnists either exploit the irony that “creationism is evolving” or speculate that the next creationist move will be to declare the earth flat, while the editorial cartoonists caricature opponents of Darwinism as apemen. The journalistic macro learned what little it knows about the subject from polemics by scientific materialists like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, who are accepted by journalists as impartial authorities because they speak in the name of “science.” So the macro defines creationists as Bible thumpers who either are ignorant of the scientific evidence that contradicts their position or choose to disregard it. From that starting point it is inconceivable that creationists could have any rational arguments to make, and you can cite just about anything you like, from fossils to finch beaks to pesticide resistance, to make them look like people blind to facts. There is no need to try to understand the dissenting point of view because according to the macro all doubts about evolution are irrational by definition.
Sometime, somewhere, some anthropologist must have explored that tribal ritual: the greatest-hits list. These lists date back at least to the seven wonders of the ancient world. They reflect the importance of some area of tribal endeavor — monumental architecture, say, or rock-and-roll. And they establish hierarchies; how better to show your pre-eminence in the pecking order than to rank everyone else? Journalists, trained to make their value judgments in neat pyramid style, most important facts first, could hardly be expected to resist the millennial listing urge. If Modern Library can cause a stir with its list of 100 best novels and the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame can take abuse for its top 500, why shouldn’t journalists share in the fun? ~ Felicity Barringer in the New York Times