It is fair to say that our country is tired. Let me rephrase that. Our country is not tired, but our people, you and I, are tired of the division, acrimony, and mistrust that pummels us every time we log into our social media accounts, read our newspapers, or watch our favorite news show. In some ways, it seems, we are like children in a dysfunctional family, cringing when mommy and daddy fight and powerless to stop it.
Under normal circumstances, we would turn to the most trusted names in journalism for stability and the road maps to guide us through our national malaise. But these are not normal circumstances and help is not on the way.
The results of a Gallup poll released in September suggest that only 59% of the American people trust the mass media. According to Gallup, only 41% have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the media to report the events of the day “accurately and fairly.”
I do not have enough time, space, or energy to go into what has happened to the profession I started in nearly half a century ago. But, I can offer an example of how we have devolved from reporting the news to creating it. And, at times, becoming active participants in the story.
An example of this aired on an Austin, Texas, network affiliate that I will not name to keep them from further embarrassment and ridicule. A few years back, a 73-year-old homeowner tied a metal folding chair and flag to a tree in his front yard. This set the hair on fire of a local liberal blogger who implied strongly that the man was a racist and that his act was a thinly disguised symbolic lynching of President Obama.
It apparently also raised the hackles of the management of said TV newsroom, because the folks there ran a big expose’ during their early afternoon newscast.
The breathless anchor proclaimed they tracked down the display, probably thanks to the blogger who provided the homeowner’s address and telephone number, and were ready to roll the unedited confrontation between the station’s reporter and the homeowner.
Hide the chickens and shoo away grandma, because this was not going to be pretty.
And so began the verbal sparring that became more of an indictment against the station, its management, and, by association, the journalism profession than proof of racism in the Republican Party as the original blogger contended.
The reporter reprimanded, yes, reprimanded, the homeowner by telling him he should realize an empty chair has racist meanings. Then, the reporter challenged him to explain why he was untying the chair if he didn’t think it was a symbol of lynching.
The reporter wrapped up the story by going live from the newsroom to say the man eventually put his chair in the middle of his lawn and kept it there, along with the American flag.
What she and the wide-eyed anchors did not report was that the man broke no law, that police did not arrested him, that the state filed no charges, and that he did not violate the covenants of his homeowners association.
All he did was ruffle the sensibilities of individuals who believe the Constitution reserves freedom of speech only to their speech, and provide news organizations the opportunity to prove why the American public’s respect for journalism is embarrassingly low.
Back when I was teaching, I used to tell my students early in the semester that they should always take their profession seriously and never put themselves above their profession. Journalism, the gathering and reporting of news and information, is one of the most important elements of a free society. It should provide us with the unfiltered information and knowledge we need to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions about our lives and the future of our nation.
It should not feed the irrational behavior found on the fringes of society or politics. Or in our newsrooms.