Ah, mirrors. Can’t do with ‘em; can’t do without ‘em. Sometimes they’re pretty darn handy when you need a close look at that bump on your chin, pesky roots growing in or a tooth that’s been bugging you. But sometimes, mirrors show a little more than we would like because, unfortunately — they don’t lie.
I can’t say that for a lot of other things today.
The media, even in its earliest form, is a mirror of our lives. Though the first newspaper made its debut in our fledgling country in 1704, it took a few years to for all the colonies to have their own versions of press. Still, it didn’t take long to incite some tension between media and government. In time, Benjamin Franklin published one of the first editorial cartoons, joining other colonial printers and editors who realized early on they held a perfect mirror to criticize the local governers. Of course, the governor then discovered — he could shut down the newspapers. Sound familiar?
“Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.” George Orwell
Early media provided critical news of local happenings, publishing arguments used by the patriots to voice their grievances like “No taxation without representation!”.(Remember that one?) Since the first two political parties were formed in the 1790’s, newspapers lined up on both sides to provide a flow of partisan news and information, sometimes vehemently. At the height of the barb slinging, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which included one that made publishing “false, scandalous or malicious writing against the Government of the US with intent to defame” a federal crime. Luckily, that cute McCarthy-ish law expired in 1801.
Yet, editors representing both parties were important political players in their states, stuffing their papers with their party’s major speeches and campaign platforms. Throughout the 1800’s, newspapers proliferated and party lines were behind every line of news copy and editorials. That is until, people like William Randolph Hearst, found he could make more moolah expanding his media’s base by becoming non-partisan. Undeterred, journalists still continued to expose social and political sins of corporate monopolies, crooked political machines, urban poverty, and child labor. Times change but news is still news.
“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in the government”. Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black
Media is a lot like a mirror, at least when it’s done right. What’s reflected is born of truth, not magic. Sometimes it shows more than we want see but then it’s not a mirror’s job to assure anyone they are “the fairest one of all”. It reflect what’s real, pimples and all – not a photoshopped version. Mirrors reflect who we are, in all our human frailties.
I don’t love mirrors yet my vanity (sounds cringe worthy) table sits in front of my bedroom window lest I get any ‘whoa, there’s a surprise’ when I leave the house. I guess I just like to know what I’m ‘facing’, no pun intended. which is pretty much the same reason I read news and blog posts or watch trusted news stations. Ya just gotta know what’s going on.
“I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. That we need the media to hold people like me to account. Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.” George W. Bush
Like a mirror, the media is only your enemy if what you see or hear isn’t true, not if it’s merely not what you like. Even when they don’t agree with what we believe or want, facts aren’t any less true — unless they aren’t facts. My mother used to say, ‘the truth hurts’ and sometimes it does. I tell my peeps to always tell me the truth, even if I don’t like it. I mean, how else would I know, that all the while I was yucking it up, I have poppy seed in my front teeth? Yes, the truth can hurt but it can also heal. It can make us think, incite us to act, and, at the very least, trip some changes in the way we view things.
My husband began his professional life as a reporter and had a lifelong ‘thing’ about real news vs entertainment. Watching a newscast, he’d riff constantly on the need for true reporting. He had great respect for newspapers, especially all those with Pulitzer packed histories who did due diligence and reported with integrity. (By the way, those still far outnumber their opposites.) As Lt. Friday in Dragnet once said, “The facts, ma’am, just the facts”. Somehow I don’t think ‘alternative’ was included in that directive.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” Thomas Jefferson
Before our Declaration of Independence was signed, the British tried to muzzle any information they did not approve of — and we all know how that ended. The First Amendment was enacted to protect speech in all forms, even when there are times today we have to wonder what they were thinking when, even the basest, hate-filled vitriol is protected. Yet, we wouldn’t give up our freedoms for anything. In fact, we fought wars to secure them.
In earlier decades, Freedom of the Press was a non-issue for newspapers in peacetime but 1941, the FCC ruled against radio broadcasting any editorial opinion, except paid party advertising. That is until the Fairness Doctrine replaced it in 1949, giving equal time to opposing views. When TV took a seat in the American home, it was a game changer. Parties used TV advertising as their main campaign vehicle, which, like today costs the big bucks and that was when fund raising took top billing. Social media and cable TV have joined the news train, becoming both huge megaphones and huge targets for a president intent on painting anything that is not a flattering reflection as the enemy. While the media has, at some point, irritated every president, no other ever categorized one of the foundations of our democracy as the ‘enemy of the people’.
“When the speech condemns a free press, you are hearing the words of a tyrant” Thomas Jefferson
We deserve to know what’s happening in our government, in the world, on the battlefronts. Without a free press, we would have no connection or protection. People need to be well informed, not with propaganda or conspiracy theories but real news. Watergate would never have happened if two young journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, didn’t take their job of keeping government in check seriously. People like Marie Colvin and Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi died in the pursuit of their journalism. The media is more than just a news outlet; it is an American watchdog which we need today more than ever. While we never like to see funky warts reflected, without our media mirror, we have no way to hold government or people accountable for its missteps.
“A free press is one of the pillars of democracy” Nelson Mandela
Media at times gets it wrong, seriously wrong, but they, like us are not perfect. They, like us, don’t always do things for the right reasons or get all the facts before they speak. Still, I like to think that, for the most part, they strive for those facts and not the magic mirror. They might be discredited, censored or even silenced but true media will ‘persist’. Entertainment can get away with smoke and mirrors; ratings are their Pulitzers. But it’s those in actual trenches, getting facts, doing research, where most truth arises. The ones embedded in war zones, knocked down in riots, smack in the thick of things with no regard for self — just story. These are the truth seekers whose reports go down in history. You can find them in every era, those whose reporting takes guts, and rarely reaps glory. But this reporting is the backbone of real news, the media we’ve trusted for decades, not ratings seasons.
The media is NOT the enemy of the people and should never be assigned a designation with such a chilling, historical resonance. In 1939, a German dictator cried ‘Lugenpresse’ or Lying Press, inciting his party to destroy media credibility as a way to silence critics. Like-minded dictators, Stalin and Mao, also branded media with the epithet “enemy of the people, often inciting death sentences. Today, bombarding public sentiment with this castigation, could and has evoked violence against journalists. Funny, how even in these supposedly enlightened times, half the country has come to actually believe this indictment, making them question even own their ability to believe anything at all.
“When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.” Christopher Dodd
Though I still love the feel of a newspaper (better to tear out ‘helpful” articles to annoy my children with), real news can be found in many places today. Though Facebook and Google allowed some ‘fake news’ to sneak on in and Russian bots have stealthily integrated into many mediums, there is still a plethora (love that word) of ‘real’, not fake news sources. And you don’t need a Geiger counter to tease out the real thing. You know who they are; choose well. Avoid sycophantic entertainment shows that masquerade as legitimate reporting. Fact check your social media. Read trusted bloggers. Listen to public radio or balanced, informed, educated TV news. Just make sure your media of choice is a true mirror of our world, warts and all. Hope;not just fear. Truth; not a fun-house mirror.
Most of all, remember that it’s rarely true that no news – is good news.