Media as Government Watchdog...Whimpering Now

As we watch the war of words between the new president and the mainstream media, who and what are the casualties?

When I was studying for a journalism degree at the University of Missouri, we were immersed in the values of accuracy, objectivity, responsibility, and integrity. Of course, after graduation, I became an advertising copywriter, so I didn’t always get to practice those values – but I continued to believe in them for “real” journalists.

Fast forward to 2011 – and I was disturbed by what I saw. Basically, it was the profusion of “news” on the internet. Suddenly, there was no way of knowing what was true and what wasn’t. Some mainstream news outlets had lost objectivity – and with it, their commitment to truth seemed compromised. But the alternative? People circulated stories on the internet that had no basis in fact. Sometimes I found with just a little fact-checking that stories coming into my inbox as “news” had been circulated years before – and weren’t even true then.

That led me to found Intelligent Women Dialogue - iwdialogue.com. The idea was to bring well-informed people (who happen to be women) together in an interactive web forum. If we addressed topics and compared information and insights, I thought, we’d find the truth together. After several years, IWDialogue went dormant. It still exists and at one time, we had as many as 1,000 people who read the weekly posts and contributed occasionally.  The problem was that instead of just throwing comments up on the site, I felt compelled to read them first and attempt to organize them into a cohesive stream of commentary. And, I’m sorry to say, when it came to hiring a staff to help me with that task or moving on to something else, I moved on. (Wrote my book…Good to Be Grand)

But today, things have gotten even worse. Much of the mainstream media outlets have given us cause to wonder if they are one-sided. Some of the social media sites aren’t committed to truth at all. And now we have a president who rails at the media when they call him on the facts. Or the “alternative facts,” as some say.

The true cynics say he is intentionally de-legitimizing the media. If so, that is of real concern because back before social media, the press played an important role in our democracy. And that was the role of watchdog: Exposing people (including our leaders) who were doing things they weren’t supposed to do, examining their statements and giving them the litmus test of accuracy. If we lose that, we lose an important check and balance that protects our power as “we the people.”

I see journalists with integrity – Scott Pelley and Charlie Rose are two of my favorites – struggling to do their jobs amid insults and obstacles…trying to cut through the spin on both sides to find the truth. Without mainstream media, we’d be left with social media – tweets and posts.  

Yes, social media presents many points of view and no one can hide from it. But my friends, can YOU tell who’s telling the truth on twitter and facebook? Because I can’t.

A study by Pew Research a few years ago surveyed which news outlets were most trusted among people of various ideologies. The Economist and BBC topped the list. A more recent article by journalist Paul Glader on Forbes.com proposes "10 Journalist Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts.

Take a look and see if you agree. But let’s not give up. Let’s give the watchdog a chance to do its job.