In the continuing standoff between the press and President Trump, some 300 U.S. newspapers
last Thursday published editorials defending themselves against the president’s repeated attacks and his characterization of their industry as the enemy of the people.
President Trump quickly shot back on Twitter, accusing the newspapers of collusion.
I don’t know that much ground will be gained by either side in this skirmish. The president’s staunchest supporters will likely continue to see the press as biased against him, while his critics will probably still see him as bombastic and short-sighted as he wages war on the so-called mainstream media.
For grins, I read the pieces from several of the papers, all variations on the same theme. It got me thinking about the press in general and how things have changed during my lifetime.
I started taking journalism classes in high school and went on to make it my college major. One of the first principles I learned about, all the way back to my first class in high school, was objectivity. I
was taught that reporters of the news were supposed to be objective and unbiased in presenting facts,
whether in print or broadcast media, to consumers of news.
A news story, of course, is different from an editorial. An editorial presents the writer’s or speaker’s opinion, often speaking or writing on behalf of the news organization. For example, at The Tennessean, David Plazas writes editorials that are endorsed and approved by an editorial board that sets the editorial policy for the paper, thus presenting a point of view on behalf of the company he works for.
Then there are opinion columnists who clearly write on behalf of themselves. Their pieces are
sometimes prefaced with disclaimers saying their opinions do not necessarily represent the views of the news organization or anyone within it.
So while the Washington Post might run an editorial that takes issue with, say, the president’s
immigration policies, it is likely to have a columnist, whose piece might run on the same day, who
heartily endorses those same policies.
There is no conflict there because the editorial writer is presenting the position of the organization (I don’t know if there is an editorial board for the Post as there is for The Tennessean, but I am making that assumption here), while the columnist is writing from his or her personal point of view.
The news pages, however, are entirely different. A news story presents (or should present) facts in such a way that the reader has no idea how the writer of that story feels about what he or she has
When I read a story about Bill Lee being elected as the Republican nominee for governor, I
should not have a clue whether the writer voted for him or not, or whether the writer believes the
election of Bill Lee is a good or bad thing.
More locally, when the Home Page reports on actions taken by the Williamson County School Board or the County Commission, its reporters don’t tell you what they think of those actions. I think it’s important to make these distinctions because with cable television and the Internet, these lines have become blurred.
I am old enough to remember the Huntley-Brinkley report on NBC, where Chet Huntley and David Brinkley wore dark, stuffy suits and read the news without ever cracking a smile. As a young boy, I
even found them a bit scary.
Over on CBS there was the legendary Walter Cronkite who showed some emotion when President Kennedy was shot and Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon, but was otherwise as stodgy as Huntley and Brinkley.
Others of that ilk that come to mind are Frank Reynolds, Harry Reasoner and Howard K. Smith.
Barbara Walters (in the early days before she had her special shows on celebrities) and Jessica Savitch, groundbreaking female newswomen, were similar.
I’m sure they all had opinions, but they never, to my knowledge, betrayed themselves. Their news broadcasts, along with radio and the daily newspapers, were the main way we got our news.
But once the Cable News Network (CNN) hit the airwaves, things slowly began to change. Although it might have started as an objective 24-hour source of news, few would argue with it eventually going to the left. Years later, along came Fox News, with an obvious right-leaning slant.
There are now many others, along with countless websites, whose agendas are obvious.
I receive news alerts (which I never asked for but they come anyway) on my phone and I could
probably tell you which source they come from without even seeing the name of that source.
Does President Trump have a legitimate gripe? If news stories are running that are nothing more
than thinly-veiled editorials, then yes he does.
But if an objectively written story happens to contain information that is unflattering of him or he simply doesn’t like it, he has no standing to complain. Freedom of the press dictates that facts are reported, well, factually.
And if a dispenser of news wants to present opinions as well as straight news stories, the lines should be clear. That is not to say an imperfect human writing a news story will always be able to write it with perfect objectivity, but that should always be the goal.
No matter how much a reporter might dislike President Trump, he or she should never be allowed to try to qualify or play down a story that, because of the information being reported (such as an uptick in the economy), tends to put the president in a positive light.
And if one who tends to favor the president has news to report that might make him look bad, that reporter has a duty to deliver that news in a factual manner.
Finally, as consumers of news, we should be reading and listening with a critical eye and ear. I have stopped reading, watching or clicking on countless news sources because I don’t want their opinions, no matter which way they lean.
Give me those guys (or ladies) in the stuffy suits with scowls on their faces, please.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.