It doesn’t get talked about much, but the idea of an independent and objective mass media was a concept born in the middle of the 20th century and one for which the window seems to have — at least temporarily — closed.
The man most often credited with creating modern journalism is Walter Lippman (1889-1974), a Harvard-educated writer, reporter, commentator and advisor to many powerful political leaders of his era. He was the right man who came along at the right time to influence an industry and way of life.
Before Lippman, and before mass media in the United States, there were numerous newspapers in major cities and even multiple papers in relatively small towns. That sort of fragmentation meant that news outlets had to find ways to differentiate from each other. They did that through bias and sensationalism. If you think of those elements as somehow new in our journalistic landscape, it’s probably because you’re less than 100 years old.
Before Lippmann, and before every household had a radio and later a television, American families got their news from whatever outlet they “preferred.” They could choose between liberal and conservative, sensationalism or a more buttoned-down approach.
When news began to be disseminated over the public airwaves, the government (through the Federal Communications Commission) took an interest in what was being said and demanded that those who held a license to broadcast serve the public interest in some way. One of those ways was more objective journalism.
Lippmann was an advocate of truth. In 1920 he wrote, “The present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis in journalism” and “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.” When he wrote it, muck-raking publishers like William Randolph Hearst ruled the media, told the stories that fit their world view and told them in a manner that often had only a tenuous relationship with the truth.
Lippmann’s attitude eventually carried the day … but it held sway among the mass media for just a few decades. Now we face much the same situation that Lippmann criticized. Today, with the demise of many newspapers and magazines, the explosion of television stations and the advent of the internet, “mass” media is in the hands of thousands of outlets all trying to capture our attention, and none of them captures enough of it to truly have a finger on the collective pulse. It takes something bigger — like a national election or catastrophe — to get a snapshot of where we are, and even that is ephemeral.
And when the news “marketplace” is so fragmented that the outlets must find ways to differentiate which have nothing to do with quality reporting, you and I are forced to decide between the comfort of a messenger that matches our worldview and one that makes us uncomfortable.
We should look at whether we are getting information that reflects what we already know and believe or that informs but irritates.
I am not arguing for any particular mass news outlet. Honestly, I don’t care what you watch, and I don’t want to debate the vices and virtues of the different networks. I’m just pointing out that if we’re not careful we run the risk of creating our own false reality — a world that exists only in our head. We are likely better off to seek information from multiple sources with numerous perspectives.
We live in an era and work in an industry with many challenges. How we face them depends on how we understand them, and that depends on what we know or think we know.
After all, if perception is reality — and I believe it is — that reality is based on perspective.