Friday,23 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)
Friday,23 March, 2018
Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The loss of objective journalism

The Gazette de France
The Gazette de France

With the dizzyingly rapid sale of a book pretending to be an authentic account of President Donald Trump’s White House, one had to stop and examine the source. Not surprisingly, the author is known for taking liberties with the facts, if not ignoring them altogether. Michael Wolff, author of Fire & Fury has been attacked by several fellow journalists for his subjective narratives.

Essayist, media critic and Hollywood reporter at USA Daily, New York magazine and Vanity Fair, Wolff’s style is “unconventional”, say his peers, also: “absorbing the chit-chat and gossip swirling around him at receptions, cocktail parties and in the streets”. A notorious figure in media circles for years, he has been challenged on previous publications for playing fast and loose with the facts. 

The author has been described by New York Times’ media critic, the late David Carr, as “no journalist”: “Wolff never distinguished himself as a reporter,” others call him “bizarre”, “no stranger to controversy”, “fraudulent”, “built a career on pissing people off”. With his professional accuracy in question, who and what are we to believe? Should we not at least be sceptical of this supposed “journalistic account”?

In fact, judging the media for the last few decades, our scepticism in general seems only to grow by leaps and bounds. We are witnessing the death of “Her Majesty”, alias Journalism, and not a tear has been shed.

Replaced by tense and tingling fiction we are duped into believing it to be straightforward news. Has it always been so? On reviewing the history of journalism, we learn that it was never quite objective. Omitting news is as bad as lying and that has been a history-long practice. We depended on news from legitimate sources, the written press, later radio, the TV and now the Internet, and only got the news they wished to give us.

With the 21st century, the Internet news has made it even more difficult to receive straight news. Research conducted by Shorenstein Centre on Media Coverage, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University as well as The Project for Excellence in Journalism and other media research centres found disparate treatment by cable networks.

The much revered and globally watched CNN happens to be the most culpable perpetuator of fiction. This was indeed a shock. CNN is in every home bar none. The public depends on it more than all other news networks. Is that not responsibility enough to attempt at fairness, objectivity and accuracy? Far from it. Their popularity has only added to their imagination. The venerable CNN has been classified as the leading news channel in bias and untruthful reporting. Shame. Several reporters had to apologise to the viewers, others were forced to resign. Surely that is not what one Robert Edward Turner III had in mind when he changed the face of television forever in 1976. To establish a 24-hour Cable News Network was pure folly, but what he had in mind was pure gold. News at your fingertips, “factual, accurate, truthful and impartial”, all day.

CNN became a broadcasting fixture. Its unforeseen success created many followers in the US and around the world.

Unfortunately it has become a vehicle for spreading its own discriminatory opinions and political agenda leading all others to act likewise. So ridiculous was its clear bias, it has been called “CNN, the Clinton News Network”. Says British writer Robert Fisk: “That is why no one cares about it anymore”.

It is not the only news network which cast aside “true news”, for the fake, the false, and the fraudulent. Omitting, embellishing and cherry-picking suit them just fine, leaving a public, misinformed, ill-informed, confused and furious. 

A shocking array of opinions, and there is no shortage of them, results in a very different view of what is really going on. What is going on is anyone’s guess. Pick and choose what you fancy. Opposing reports of the same event baffle the news seeker.

Opinions should be stated as thus and not disguised as news. No news is good news they say, and no news is what we get. The more complicated the situation, the more pronounced the bias.

There are laws protecting the freedom of the press, but what laws are there to protect us from the freedoms the press takes with the truth. 

The written press is no different, even if fewer among us read it. Every columnist, editor, reporter finds a way to wiggle in personal opinions, erasing or overwhelming a news item.

It was in Italy in the 1400s that the “newspaper business” started. They were combined hand-written chronicles of “certain” news and events, distributed among business connections. In 1556 Venice published the government’s first Notizia Scritto (Written Notices) which cost one gazetto — a Venetian coin of the time. The name eventually came to mean “newspaper”. Newsletters were handwitten to convey political, military and economic news throughout Europe. 

The first “gazettes” started to appear in Germany, after the invention of the Printing Press The Gazette de France, established in 1632, was patronised by Louis XIII. All newspapers were subject to prepublication and served as instruments of propaganda to the monarchy. Nothing changes.

There is therefore no reason to lament the death of the Free Press. We only thought there was a “free press”, as we thought we had “equality” or “justice” for all.

These are only dreams men dream of.

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

C P Scott (1848-1932)

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