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Who are the 'enemies of the people'?

  • By Clay Neely
  • |
  • Mar. 09, 2017 - 6:57 AM

As a longtime journalist-turned academic, I often find myself at gatherings of non-journalists who profess to hate the press and wish me to join in a round of vilification.

When confronted by a critic of the profession, I first ask them to define the press they so loathe. The conversation quickly turns to Washington, to cable TV channels, to opinion masquerading as fact - highlighting the yawning gap in news literacy among many otherwise well-educated and well-meaning citizens. What they see as the news, it seems, often involves anything but the news.

News outlets historically have produced both news and opinion. Yet in my experience, news reporters do not know and frankly could care less about the editorial pages, much less work in cahoots with editorial pages to shape editorial arguments. Those are two different worlds existing in one newsroom. Confusing? Yes, a bit. But media consumers who try can distinguish between news reporters and editorials, unless it suits their ideological purposes not to make such distinctions.

Television news further confuses the media consumer with its endless and clumsy diffusion of news and opinion, often provided in the same show – a news story breaks, then commentators are asked to weigh in, often with seconds to prepare a fiery response. The better the theater, the more eyeballs, the better. The result is a deeply confusing presentation in which reporters report, gasbags opinionate, and reporters are left with the bill as news becomes no more than a sendup for endless ideological sparring.

So, we have news - the independent, fact-driven pursuit of a functional version of the truth, subject to constant course correction and eager to admit error when it occurs - and we have the rest of 'the media,' often sharing the attention of readers and viewers, not terribly concerned with fact or truth but highly invested in polarization. Is it any wonder that few of our fellow citizens can state with any confidence whether they are consuming news or opinion?

None of this excuses the president's dangerous rhetoric regarding the institution of the press. Think about media criticism this way: there are three levels of analysis, the individual (a reporter), the institutional (a newspaper or a TV station or a website) and the meta-institutional (the press as a whole).

Stories, and the reporters who produce them, merit scrutiny and criticism - they are the lingua franca of journalism, and the president, and anybody else for that matter, can certainly challenge a story they find faulty in some way. Move up a notch to the institutional level, however, and criticism looks a lot more like attempted control: What does it mean to dismiss the work of an entire news outlet? 

Are we to believe that the work of the entire enterprise must be dismissed out of hand? In most cases, we are being asked to reject the work of dozens or even hundreds of unique individuals, each with an infinitely different set of individual journalists with varying skill levels, training, financial support, and on and on. These are people, after all, no different from you or I. Journalism is a human enterprise.

Yet it's at the meta-institutional level that the president takes his media criticism, and in doing so, he tears at the fabric of the democracy. For if we acknowledge, however grudgingly, that the press is requisite to the system, then we must embrace the press while criticizing its miscreants. We must love the press, the institution, in other words, while calling out the reporter who gets it wrong. Labeling the entirety of the press as 'enemies of the people' throws every working reporter in the country under the bus.

This is an important distinction, because we can acknowledge that the institution of the press matters - that journalism matters - even as we critique its performance. Vilification of the news media as a whole certainly feels good to many, but it's not helpful criticism and will serve only to further divide us.

Charles N. Davis is dean of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. This column is available for publication by Georgia Press Association members.