It has been building for years, and it has come to a head in 2016: The Year of the Evil Media. I’ve tried to ignore it, and deny it, but it has become the 800-pound gorilla.
During my youth, we had three major TV networks, a couple of weekly news magazines, and of course, newspapers. The daily papers had editorial pages that didn’t interfere with the fairness of the front page stories. Time and Newsweek offered well-written summaries of the week’s news, with a dash of opinion on the side.
Long before the age of cable network shout-fests, ABC, CBS and NBC filled their morning time slots with a teaspoon of news and a barrel of cooking segments and cute animals. They served up thirty minutes of news in the evening, and except for an occasional commentary, the content was pretty much down the middle.
Most folks who are over forty grew up with that steady diet of information, which seemed like plenty at the time. It was more news than our ancestors ever got, and America had elected a few dozen presidents by then.
Now, in what can politely be termed an information overload, we get all kinds of news from thousands of sources. Some are real and others are fictional. How can we tell them apart?
A few years ago, I would have said, "Stick to the sources you know. Local reporters, the major TV networks, the big-name magazines, and the Associated Press. The others, not so much."
Now, we’re all lumped together. We’re the mainstream media, the "lame-stream" media, and most of all, the evil media. We’re accused of rigging elections, cooking up false poll numbers, and suppressing the news from one political party or the other. If a certain candidate fails to pay his parking tickets, half the people are going to hate us no matter what we do. If we report that story, we’re attacking the candidate ("The other candidate has done far worse!"). If we ignore the story, we’re covering it up ("Why aren’t you telling the truth about his unpaid parking tickets!).
I used to take offense at such accusations. Believe it or not, I just don’t see that sort of activity at my workplace. I never have. If my co-workers have a strong political point of view, they drop it off at the door, and pick it up on the way home. I’ve never been asked to frame a story to make someone look good, or bad. Perhaps because I’m a sheltered country bumpkin at heart, I assumed all newsrooms operated that way.
Nowadays, I’m not so sure. During the recent presidential campaign, in addition to the cable networks that proudly lean left or right, I was disappointed to see some of the big networks making no effort to be neutral. Certainly each candidate had flaws (how’s that for understatement?) and those shouldn’t be glossed over. Still, I wanted the "legitimate" networks to report the facts, and leave the snide comments to me, in the privacy of my home. The straw that broke this camel’s back was on a network website. The banner headline was about a candidate’s speech at a campaign stop. The story said the candidate’s promises were ridiculous, the reasoning was flawed, and the proposals simply would not work. If this story had been clearly labeled "opinion" or "commentary" I’d have no problem with it. Instead it was presented as a supposedly objective news story, by a network reporter. There would be more to come, just like it.
In recent days, I’ve seen other examples of how and why we are losing your trust. In the immediate aftermath of the Woodmore Elementary School bus crash, a local news outlet simply could not wait on an official death toll, so they put a big number out there, on air and online. It was false. It was not even close. This inflated, inaccurate story was picked up by the station’s network, and would soon go worldwide. Since we’re all lumped into the same barrel, we all took the blame, even though one misguided journalist concocted the story.
I’ve also witnessed big-star network reporters march in to Chattanooga to take over the story. I’ve seen one of them spread unsubstantiated rumors worldwide, while another one badgered a teary-eyed first-year elementary principal to justify the hiring practices of an independent bus contractor. (The same guy also bullied his own crew, and attempted to bully a local reporter, who did not back down.)
To be clear, I still have faith in the majority of reporters. Unfortunately, the rudeness, bias, and sensationalism of a few give us all a bad name.
Make me one promise: If you ever catch me making up stories, reporting in a sensational style, or belittling my colleagues, please send me a message. "It’s time to find another line of work."
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of the new book "Volunteer Bama Dawg," a collection of his best columns, available at ChattanoogaRadioTV.com. You may contact David at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.