The old “objectivity” model of journalism hasn’t disappeared, but has mostly broken down. There are still good journalists trying to practice it. And there is value in focusing on verifiable facts, trying to emphasize the most relevant of those, and trying to avoid including only facts that the journalist “likes.”
Still, there’s plenty of room for bias in deciding which facts to put in and which to leave out. There’s no real cure for that problem except for having the news audience practice critical thinking about the news they consume, and that doesn’t seem to easy to ensure.
But the public appetite for facticity with some pretense of objectivity has been greatly undermined. And the advent of Fox News has played a big role. Fox has some good journalists, and occasionally makes a lame nod at including liberals on its panels. But it is sometimes little more than a steady stream of right-wing brainwashing.
Its highest rated show, “Hannity,” makes no pretense of objectivity or anything that could be called even-handedness, and it’s not always too fussy about what it will treat as a “fact.” That perversion of the objectivity model is legal, too, First Amendment-wise.
Hannity is Fox’s biggest star, which means he’s an important, influential voice — one that often drives his large audience into a rage. His respect even for factual accuracy is low, and he makes no pretense of recognizing the old journalistic line between fact and opinion.
Hannity is widely reported to be an informal adviser to the current incumbent in the White House, and specifically so in the recent matter of the “Release the Memo” campaign.
The memo in question is a Republican memo, authored by U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, who had lost his credibility even before this episode. The Nunes memo itself makes no pretense of objectivity, which is sad, but it’s where we are in America. And the refusal of the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee to even allow the Democrats to put out their version of the truth really kinda shocks the conscience. (The Dems version may be released soon, or not. It would have to be approved by President Trump. But the Repubs obviously wanted to have all eyes on their version as long as they could get away with it.)
Anyway, to tie up the Hannity angle, I watched Hannity’s opening of his show Friday, the evening the memo was released. The Republican memo, Hannity said, reveals the work of the FBI in the matter of the its FISA application to continue the surveillance of Carter Page, about which you may have heard, to be: “The biggest abuse of power corruption case in American history.”
The abuse of power in this matter, Hannity said, amounts to: “Watergate times a thousand.”
Don’t laugh. Or laugh if you must. But that’s what Hannity said. The document asking the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to permit the U.S. intelligence community to continue surveilling Carter Page (the government has been surveilling Page since 2016 and — as required by the FISA law — the warrant allowing that surveillance had been renewed three times, the recent crisis is over whether it should have been renewed again. The conduct of the FBI and others in seeking the most recent renewal is what Hannity said equaled “Watergate times a thousand.”)
Hannity also said the Nunes memo, which details issues that Trump loyalists have with the renewal application, “Proves that the entire basis of the Russia investigation was based on lies that were bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton and her campaign.”
Just an aside here to say: It doesn’t. The memo is a highly selective version of reality that the Republicans were able to proffer by not allowing contrary facts and arguments to be released.
The memo also reveals, according to Hannity, that, “The Mueller investigation is and was a witch hunt from the beginning. It’s built on a house of cards and tonight it is crashing down.”
And he had a few recommendations of what to do next, for example:
“The Mueller investigation must be shut down…
“The people responsible must go to jail…”
“Look, if we as a country, if we care about our Constitution, if we believe in civil liberties, if we believe in these protections, then the special counsel must be disbanded immediately. And, by the way, nobody else will say this, all charges against Paul Manafort and General Michael Flynn need to be dropped. It’s that simple.”
He said a bit more — it’s an hour-long show. And perhaps I’m overdoing how dangerous this is. To keep this all in perspective, it’s worth noting that ABC’s evening news, the top-ranked among the network news shows, reaches about triple the audience that Hannity does.
But you see what I just did? I worried that I was overstating my case, and I brought up a fact that cuts against my overall argument. Watch Hannity sometime and see if he ever does that. He’s in full brainwash mode all the time. Personally, I don’t trust anyone who won’t even acknowledge contrary facts and arguments.
I’m also aware that a liberal channel, MSNBC, plays a somewhat similar role on the left. I watch Rachel Maddow often and some of the others in MSNBC’s liberal lineup. Maddow has ripped apart the Nunes memo for days. She, and others on MSNBC, are not playing the old objectivity game, either — at least in the sense of offering equal air time to all parts of the argument. MSNBC’s guest lists are often stacked in favor of liberal views. But they are much, much more honest and factual than Hannity. (By the way, of the top six cable news programs, by ratings, five are on Fox, the exception being Maddow.)
Why am I bothering you with this? Because I often worry about the danger of having a growing share of the news audience that decides they will get their news and views from shows that are heavily biased in either direction.
If all the quotes from Hannity above leaves any of you craving a different, leftier take on the ludicrous Nunes memo, here’s Bernie Sanders brief reaction, from his Facebook page.
But I’m not sure that listening to a voice on the far right to balance off on from the far left is the solution to what ails us.