Modern Journalism in a Modern Democracy: Who watches the Watchdogs?
Three things that everyone can do to shed opinion bias.
Adrian Vore of the San Diego Union-Tribune echos a long-held opinion among some that there should there be a role for “watchdog journalism” – that there ought to be an organization or other body that monitors bias in the news media. In a modern democracy? In American democracy? He explains himself pretty well and I agree, to an extent, with his well-intentioned ideas, but the problem is, we already have one.
My answer is derived from the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition. Some people also call the guarantees of the First Amendment the Five Pillars of the U.S. Constitution. My big problem with Mr. Vore’s summation is this error in perception – that the news-consuming public needs a watchdog to protect it from undue bias. I might not mention this editorial were it not for the fact that I hear this suggestion – throughout the ideological spectrum – in one form or another. As if the duty of “watchdog” is someone else’s job – other than We The People? The universal “THEY” perhaps? How would this watchdog agency be staffed? Would the members have to constantly take a litmus test for neutrality?
This suggestion reaches into a mistaken belief that The Pillars are entitlements; worse yet, that freedoms are self-maintaining and incorruptible as the sun. Guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, these rights certainly seem incorruptible – when they are left uncorrupted. As with all guarantees, they erode over time from lack of attention and misuse. Without direct investment from every individual – freedoms atrophy and whither away like water on a hot pavement. I believe the fastest way to erode freedoms is by delegating their protection to ‘others’ for safekeeping. For one thing, that’s the job of the three branches of government: executive, legislative, judicial. But they need help. To maintain a strong democracy, all people – everyone citizen – must exercise our freedoms with great deliberation. If we are to protect our rights, and preserve them for future generations, we must be willing to make a direct investment of time for our full involvement and engagement.
The true test for democracy has never been whether or if there are enough journalists who can play the role of watchdog (and to have the capacity to do so with clarity). The real crux of the issue is whether we have enough citizens who are willing to put enough of themselves into an effort that produces real results through critical thinking and analysis. You know, the place where informed opinions come from? The question ought to be whether citizen readers know how to get to the throat of an issue so that informed decisions and opinions are possible.
There are Three Paths you can take to make news consumption more productive. They will help you fulfill your citizen responsibility – to be as informed as possible on the major issues – without undue influence from newsmakers and others who WILL try to steer your opinions.
First Path: never avoid a source because of a perceived bias. As a former journalist and a lifetime reader, I KNOW that all news is biased to some degree or another. Knowing how to recognize bias is sometimes difficult. Moreover, assume that your personal bias may trigger a false positive response. If your goal is to have informed opinions about what’s going on in the country, then your decision to BE informed must be an active one. Don’t let information come to you; pursue it, hunt it down, slay it.
Second Path: understand that YOUR personal bias is directly disproportional to the number of sources. For instance, the smaller the number of your sources, the more affected by bias you’ll be. To lessen bias, broaden your scope of intake. The more voices you hear, the less likely bias will filter into your own information base. You may read/watch CNN and Fox, but consider adding BBC (Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio (NPR), Breitbart, Huffington, WashingtonTimes, Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Telegraph, Al Jezzera… Get the picture?
Third Path: never react to headlines. The headline is there to stop you in your tracks and get you to read/watch the story. Why? Know what “clickbait” is all about? Think about the core business that’s at the foot of every organization you know. With the exception of BBC and NPR/PBS which are publicly sponsored, all of them sell ads to help pay for the news you read and listen to. Having mentioned NPR/PBS, remember that they may be the one exception to the “advertising rule,” but remember that they are beholden to their big donors. And BBC, while it could be held that they are far above the fray, they really aren’t.
As for the watchdogs and who watches the watcher? That’ll be you and me, for ourselves.