What I am about to say might not win me any friends at the Alligator, but I must be frank: The current state of American journalism is doing its part to destroy American democracy.
It sounds like the ranting of a raving lunatic, but bear with me. My diatribe might convince you.
The proliferation of web-based journalism coupled with the desperate need for cable news to instantly report everything — typically with terrible results — to the dying newspaper industry, all are doing their part to spark a flame and watch our beloved experiment in democracy burn to the ground.
With regards to web-based media, almost anyone now has the potential to be a citizen “journalist.” I put journalist in quotes, because let’s be honest, how many are reporting news or are simply pushing a half-baked commentary and trying to pass it off as serious journalism?
On the one hand, web-based reporting is a great development, and the almost endless number of blogs do help uncover stories that conventional journalists don’t have time or the means to cover.
However, there’s a dark, seedy and sinister side to online journalism that should shake you to your core.
Conspiracy theorists like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones use the web as a means to distribute their deranged beliefs to the hardcore believers. Both Beck and Jones use their websites to bloviate endlessly on an array of ridiculous conspiracy theories masquerading as “news.”
I’d consider their inane beliefs hilarious if no one took them seriously. Sadly, far too many do.
If the conspiracy theorists don’t concern you, then the lack of hard news websites should.
Scourers of web-based news are dealt with an endless stream of ideological websites masquerading as news, but those sites spend most of their time bashing those they don’t like. From Drudge Report and FOX Nation on the right, to the Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo on the left, it’s far too easy to plug your ears, put the blinders on and only receive “news” from one angle.
Who needs fact-based journalism when opinion is far more fun?
Rather than hard reporting, CNN, Fox and MSNBC push an array of talking heads yelling at viewers, demanding acceptance of their point of view. When they’re too tired to talk, they bring in pundits to push an ideology for them.
Also — in the midst of a breaking news story such as the recent shootings at the Navy Yard or the Boston Bombing — news networks regularly get their facts wrong in a rush to be the first ones reporting. This happened to NBC and CNN in the immediate aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting last month. Both networks incorrectly reported the name of the shooter and quickly had to issue retractions.
Similar events occurred in the aftermath of the Boston Bombing. After the bombs went off and confusion and chaos gripped the streets of the city, networks quickly jumped on a story that a fire in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum at Harvard University was somehow connected to the attacks.
Newsflash! It wasn’t.
In a race to be first, television-news networks regularly look like the losers as they trade facts for speed. We all want to receive news as it breaks, but getting the facts wrong does more to hurt the story and our society than it helps. The talking heads look foolish, and we grow dumber and a bit more impatient as a result.
For the sake of our democracy and our nation’s future, it’s imperative we seek out the truth, not some distorted monstrosity created to sell ads, promote an ideology or push partisan viewpoints to the edge.
Plenty of great journalists are working today and doing their part to tell the truth. Their numbers aren’t dwindling; rather, people aren’t yearning for facts the way they used to.
It’s time for journalists across the country to once again remind the American people why it’s so important not only to have a free press but one that prides itself in telling the unmitigated truth.
Joel Mendelson is a UF graduate student in political campaigning. His column runs on Mondays. A version of this column ran on page 7 on 10/14/2013 under the headline "How the Internet and television news undermine journalism"