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Trumped again—The failure of modern journalism

April 16th, 2011 Posted in Opinion

By Ben Zaritsky

With nearly a year-and-a-half left until the 2012 election, the country has once again plunged itself into a mode of self-hatred and disrespect known as campaign mode.

For a short time after the 2010 election, I allowed myself to dream that the next cycle wouldn’t be as bad. For a moment, I dreamed that there wouldn’t be as much name-calling or politicking with important issues in order to satisfy simple minorities that politicians try to please only so they remain in office.

For only an instant, I thought the media would fact-check and help the public determine what was truth versus what was being said for political gain.

Sadly, after only a short few months of recovery, I find myself being drawn back into the same model of politics that has developed over the past 50 years, with the help of the mass media.

I suppose this is better than the usual alternative the media offer. I can handle watching Charlie Sheen break down only so many times a day before I begin wondering why I still watch the news.

For some reason, the media can’t seem to focus on anything that actually makes a difference. We have our choice of celebrity news or political gossip.

The media, of course, are not the only party at fault. When political hopefuls spew incomprehensible dialog, racial slurs and absurd theories, it is hard not to cover them. My problem comes in the way it gets covered.

Donald Trump, the second runner-up in the GOP primaries at the moment, can’t or won’t discuss real policy. Instead, time and again, Trump has decided to play the “birther” card.

Those of you lucky enough to not know what the birther theory is, (and bless you if you don’t), allow me to explain.

See “Trumpery” on Today’s WORD on Journalism.

There has been for quite some time now a theory in the most obscure parts of conservative America that Barack Obama is in fact not the rightful president because he was born in Kenya and flown to Hawaii at infancy in order to falsify records of his birthplace.

Despite two Hawaii governors saying that they have the actual birth certificate, factcheck.org (a nonpartisan fact-checking organization) verifying the story, and countless debunking of all claims that birthers make, the conspiracy story lingers.

Donald Trump recently grabbed onto this theory in order to get some limelight for his implausible presidential bid.

This “Trump”ed up charge, however, (yes, I do feel good about that pun) is only slightly better than the celebrity meltdowns forced upon us at slow political times.

It, like the wave of celebrities on their way to rehab, is the same retold story.

CNN, for example, ran a segment that let “you decide about Trump’s ‘birther’ claims.” In this segment, commentators discussed some of Trump’s reasons for bringing up this issue, along with some facts. They did not, however, decide whether the claim had any merit. Instead of simply fact-checking and deciding if the issue had any merit, they decided to go with a more “fair and balanced” position.

In other words, they took no position. In an attempt to remain unbiased they took wild theories as fact. Then they largely ignored fact and the proof debunking these theories.

It is no large wonder why Jon Stewart is the most trusted man in America. He fact-checks. He comes down on issues and brings up relevant history. He questions politicians, not on their promiscuity or other irrelevant issues, but rather on issues that they are promoting. He nails pundits and politicians down on issues. He forces answers. And, for the cherry on top, he does it in an entertaining way.

That is not to say that all media or news programs are regurgitating what others say. Anderson Cooper, for example, gave a good shellacking to Republican Texas State Rep. Leo Berman on this same birther issue just last November. Cooper listened to Berman, asked him where he got his information, and then presented information that proved, unequivocally, that this man was simply spreading Internet rumors.

That, in my humble opinion, is good, honest reporting.

Last year, National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia Shepard came to Utah State University. In her speech, she discussed how everyone has bias. It is unavoidable. The key to honest, good reporting, she said, is transparency.

The important lesson of the birther story isn’t to give a voice to the side that won’t listen to reason and fact in order to appear unbiased. Rather, CNN should have, as Anderson Cooper did months before, been transparent in reporting and show where and how they came to their conclusions.


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