Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Loyd Pettegrew.
John Keats wrote in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all — Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” These days truth is in precious short supply in much of journalism.
In “Why Right and Wrong are Just as Objective as Science,” David Weinberger argues that facts and values are indivisible—value judgments are built into all frameworks of facts.
Two major facts are currently dominating the MSM news waves – the Coronavirus and the 2020 Election. Both of these events and their headline stories are generating significant levels of fear in the minds of America’s citizenry, and both are going to be with us for awhile.
The fear surrounding the Coronavirus is understandable and may grow even worse as the possibility of a pandemic dominates domestic and international news. The fears surrounding the 2020 Election, though admittedly less deadly, are just as real in the minds of many Americans and the news media. Two important questions to consider in evaluating media fearmongering of the 2020 election are: 1) how justified are concerns of foreign intervention in the election and 2) should the public be alarmed by how the media present these events to us?
On January 21st of this year, David Weinberger published a follow-up piece to the aforementioned Federalist article, “Why the News Media Cannot and Should Not be Unbiased,” with diverse interpretations of the facts. There is merit in Mr. Weinberger’s thesis, but also cause for considerable caution. Different perspectives may very well result in different interpretations of the facts. Fox News and CNN come to mind. The process of viewing and interpreting facts, however, must be based on the highest standards of professional journalism and news reporting. Such standards would obviate the creation of false narratives based on the intentional manipulation of facts.
To construct and manipulate facts to fit a favored narrative simply isn’t legitimate journalism; it is more akin to indoctrination, brainwashing and propaganda. It puts an unprofessional thumb on the scale of truth. We have seen several examples of fact creation and manipulation to fit a popular, predetermined, polarizing narrative. On January 2020, CNN agreed to settle a libel lawsuit filed by Covington Catholic High School student Joseph Sandmann for their reporting. Although the settlement amount was not disclosed, the suit was a result of a manipulation of the facts to fit a false, but preferred narrative. The reporting was objectively wrong. It is important to note that the judge also allowed a portion of the suit against the Washington Post to continue for similar reasons. There can be significant consequences for fact manipulation to fit a biased mindset.
More recently news outlets reported that Russia was favoring Trump in the 2020 election. On February 23, 2020, The New York Times ran a story about dueling narratives stemming from a muddled account of Russia’s 2020 election interference. The very next day on February 24, Tobias Hoonhout of the National Review countered, "National security officials have disputed the New York Times’s characterization of a recent House Intelligence Committee briefing on election interference, arguing that it is “misleading” to suggest that intelligence officials have concluded the Russians are working to aid President Trump’s reelection." No matter what your political affiliation, unreliable and confusing information is being presented as fact. There is no beauty in this truth.
Other recent examples illustrate our truth claim:
CNN--March 1, 2018, “Don Lemon apologized for not correctly reporting that Fox News did, in fact, cover the resignation of White House Communications Director Hope Hicks. Lemon called Fox ‘State Run’ Trump T.V.”
Washington Examiner--February 12, 2020, “The media elevated Michael Avenatti to stardom – His felony conviction reflects on them.”
New York Post--March 25, 2019, Post Editorial Board: “Avenatti’s fall is only the latest sign of media Trump madness. Fact is, Mueller’s conclusions don’t just vindicate Trump, they expose how much of the media misled the public for nearly two years. That’s a bad sign for democracy indeed.”
These examples and myriad others represent neither journalistic truth nor beauty. John Keats is rolling over in his grave.