I graduated debt-free from journalism school in 1968 at a time when there were plenty of jobs and some great opportunities in the news business. I was lucky enough to work at some prestigious news organizations, including United Press International, Post-Newsweek, Gannett and the Miami Herald.
In every one of those news jobs, accuracy in reporting was priority number one. At UPI, it was very simple. Make a major error in a story that’s released nationally and you were fired. There were no ifs, ands or buts. Rules like that kept you on your toes.
Yes, you also had to be quick. But not so fast that you made mistakes. You were judged on a combination of both speed and accuracy. But accuracy was always the most important part of the job.
It’s clear that’s no longer true. Just in the past week, the New York Post got the Boston Marathon bombing story so wrong on so many counts it was hard to believe. They reported that 12 people had died, when only three had. They reported that a Saudi man was a suspect being held “in custody” when that wasn’t true.
And, perhaps worst of all, they put pictures of two young men on the front page that turned out not to be the bombers. The newspaper admitted not knowing whether the men were even suspects. One of those young people was 17 years old and told other reporters that he was afraid to leave his home after the Post printed his picture.
Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the paper, should have been outraged—but he was not. He argued that the picture was “instantly” withdrawn when the mistake was known. He did not explain how one instantly withdraws a printed front page from the streets.
Television news networks are equally notorious for errors. When astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died, NBC incorrectly called him Neil Young, the musician. That’s what happens when networks rely on 20-something staffers who don’t know their history.
We are all aware that few journalism jobs are left and most pay very little. In fact, I was paid far more in the early 1970s than most journalists make today. Make no mistake, it’s that downsizing of jobs and salaries and journalistic standards that leads to the mistakes and errors we see so often today.
At least most news organizations try to be accurate. Others have a different agenda, which complicates the picture further. Networks like Murdoch’s Fox News present a clearly right-wing agenda—not one based on genuine attempts at truth and accuracy. Too many people believe this is actual news.
Yet, the politicization of journalism seems to be getting worse. Charles and David Koch, the notorious supporters of far right-wing causes, are said to be exploring the purchase of the Tribune Company, which owns 23 television stations and eight newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Orlando Sentinel and The Hartford Courant.
These men, who finance favored political candidates, are not journalists or even interested in objective reporting. The New York Times reported a source saying the Koch brothers often say “they see the conservative voice as not being well represented” in the news media. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what these financiers are up to.
“It’s a frightening scenario when a free press is actually a bought and paid-for press and it can happen on both sides,” Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group, told the New York Times.
Journalism is not just in a poor financial state these days. It is in a moral crisis as well. The old standards of truth and accuracy in news reporting have been thrown out the window. The Internet, which has empowered everyone as a citizen “journalist,” has not helped. The day is quickly coming when truly independent journalists will have to work on their own.
Just as members of Congress are under the control of money, now the same has happened to journalism. It’s a sad day indeed for accurate, truthful reporting.