Voting Machines Defamation Lawsuit

FILE - A headline about President Donald Trump is displayed outside Fox News studios in New York on Nov. 28, 2018. A voting technology company suing Fox News is arguing that Fox Corp. leaders Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch played a leading role in deciding to air false claims that the technology helped “steal” the 2020 presidential election from former President Donald Trump, according to a filing Monday, March 6, 2023.

It is rarely a good sign when the news media becomes the news.

Eric Sondermann

Eric Sondermann

Yet that is happening with growing regularity. Consider this another disturbing symptom of our overly heated, aggrieved, polarized times.

At the end of January, Leonard Downie, Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post, wrote an opinion column for that paper, entitled: “Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust.”

Downie’s piece is worth reading whether you shake you head up and down or side to side in doing so. My head movement had a distinctly disagreeable tilt to it.

He posed the question of “whether traditional objectivity should still be the standard for news reporting,” before proceeding to answer his own query in the negative.

The thesis Downie advances is that the pursuit of objectivity has been rendered moot, or at least outdated, by the diversification of newsrooms. Now that these inner sanctums of news gathering are no longer as white or as male as was the historic case, he submits that “accurate reporting” needs to be informed by the “backgrounds, experiences and points of view” of a far more diverse journalist corps.

We will return to this dubious idea. But, first, let’s identify some of the other telltale instances of a news supply chain in some state of upheaval.

The New York Times, continuing to boast, “All the news that’s fit to print” as if that was even possible amidst the glut of information, is often a bellwether when it comes to media trends and controversies. The editorial leadership there recently found it necessary to lay down the law to a mass of reporters outspokenly upset that the paper’s coverage of transgender issues had been insufficiently supportive of such individuals.

Displaying rare backbone that would go a long way on college campuses, the Times senior brass wrote internally: “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”

Bully for them three years after many of the same sensitive sorts in the Gray Lady’s newsroom demanded and secured the scalp of editorial page editor James Bennet who had the temerity to run a column by a Republican U.S. senator advocating a military response to civil unrest resulting from the murder of George Floyd.

It is possible to have thought Sen. Tom Cotton wrong in his assertion without regarding the topic as beyond the pale and unworthy of public debate and a few column inches.

But speaking of sensitive sorts, in Florida they occupy the political right where a few Republican legislators look to curry favor with Gov. Ron DeSantis with a bill to require bloggers and others venturing a published opinion about state government to register with said government.

My dog’s understanding of the First Amendment is limited to her inalienable right to bark. But even she would be able to get any such law summarily thrown out.

That leads us to the embarrassing but highly revealing mess at Fox News. In the ultimate testimony to tribalism, abundant evidence shows that Fox executives and prominent on-air figures purveyed the Trump-fueled notion of a stolen election in 2020 to appease their audience while knowing full well that it was all so much horse excrement.

The blatant falsity was only exceeded by the network’s stunning insincerity and cynicism. Fox was acting on what it regarded as business imperatives in mollifying its partisan audience. Edward R. Murrow would weep. Heck, Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and Chris Wallace are surely aghast.

Here’s hoping that some judge or jury instructs Fox News to write a painfully, ridiculously large check for its deliberate defamation of Dominion Voting Systems.

All of which brings us full circle to the question of news objectivity. Of course, total objectivity is purely theoretical. It would require a perfectionism and a detachment alien to humans.

Even stories written by ChatGPT and other tools of artificial intelligence will not be immune to the prejudices of those doing the coding.

However, simply acknowledging that objectivity is elusive does not mean it should not be aspirational. If Downie was to follow his argument to its logical conclusion, he would have to make room for the November 2020 rantings of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and sordid others, no matter the utter fiction and bad faith behind them.

When a few media types contended that Donald Trump posed a unique menace that warranted a deviation from traditional reporting in favor of unvarnished, agenda-driven advocacy, it is any surprise that some unsavory types loyal to Trump decided to embrace a similar ethic?

It is un unmitigated plus that America’s newsroom are far less homogenous than was long the case. A variety of skin tones and nationalities along with ample inclusion of both genders were overdue.

But because those in the business are now a more diverse lot is not tantamount to saying that the process of news collection and reporting have fundamentally changed. Certainly, it is important to tell the stories of many too long in the shadows. Though that does not alter the premium on the accurate presentation of facts and the balanced explanation of what it means.

More than ever, this is vital. Trust in the news media is at scary lows. A 2020 survey by the Knight Foundation found that three in four Americans think media bias to be a major problem.

Some speak openly of “alternate facts” and a “post-truth age.” The industry is increasingly fragmented. Many outlets have gone through substantial cutbacks with detritus strewn about and a decline in quality control. And then there is the super-charged, minimally-monitored world of social media.

Bad actors of malicious intent attempt to take advantage of this media landscape. Would-be demagogues who threaten the very tenets of a free press are on the loose.

This is not the time to undercut or sacrifice the timeless goals of good, responsible journalism. Above all, we ought to be wary of those who would throw in the towel on objectivity and call it progress.

Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for Colorado Politics and the Gazette newspapers. Reach him at [email protected]; follow him at @EricSondermann

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