But here’s what’s missing from these beat-downs of the media: a conversation about the responsibilities of the news consumer.
“I am not advocating the suppression of free press or something — the free press is the guardian of a free society, but I think a free press must be a responsible media. And I think our media, in the West in particular, makes heroes and makes this more attractive,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. “Our media makes celebrities out of these people, and therefore these people, without meaning, find meaning, and posthumously heroism, and our media is complicit. I am not saying do not report it, but do we need to do it so graphically in such a way that it creates an instant moment of fame for someone who is seeking that?”
In the audience was Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, who was called on by the session moderator to atone for the sins of the profession. Calling Pham’s media slam “a little unjust” and reminding all that he is not “responsible for all of the media, ” Erlanger said, “People are interested in news. They are interested in Kim Kardashian’s behind. They are also interested in murders … They are interested in human stories.” The veteran foreign correspondent pushed back against limitations on the press or unrealistic expectations of the press:
And it just seems to me that we live in America, in a country where the Bill of Rights, and a free press, and a free press means a free press for everybody, the responsible as well as the not so responsible. And if you are going to make a distinction between liberty and responsibility, I think we are getting into very deep trouble here.
Addressing Pham’s contention that traditional media is to blame for the glorification of jihadists, Nik Gowing of the BBC made an additional point. “The host of other sources and platforms, often uncurated,” he said, “means that we do not have control over what you are concerned about anymore.”
Erlanger is right. A free press applies to all kinds, the responsible and the deplorable. Gowing is right. That free press now includes and competes with other platforms and sources — Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. — that are disrupting not only how people get their news but who they trust to give them their news. But what neither demands is an end to the passivity of the news consumer. In our current Wild West news landscape where the Internet and social media have eliminated gatekeepers and eroded confidence in once-trusted sources, there is only so much hand-holding a journalist can do to ensure the public is informed. If the public is duped by fake news or irritated by what news has become, it shares in the blame.
During an interview for my “Cape Up” podcast in October, Alberto Ibargüen, a champion of the First Amendment and the president of the Knight Foundation, praised the “small-d democratic promise” of the Internet. “Everybody is able to speak. Everybody is able to write,” he said. “Everybody is able to have the access to information.” When I bemoaned what this has done to trust in traditional or established news sources, Ibargüen countered, “How can there be … until we figure out how to … decide what a trusted source is?”
This is the fertile ground in which fake news flourished during the presidential campaign. According to a Pew Research Center poll released the day of that Atlantic Dialogues discussion, “Many Americans believe fake news is sowing confusion.” Not just “many” — 64 percent of them. So, traditional media outlets aren’t trusted and folks willingly share fake news within their cosseted ideological silos. If an educated citizenry is a foundation of democracy, then our foundation is in need of serious repair.
With the advent of a presidential administration that will challenge our free press in ways unimaginable and unprecedented, it is imperative that the American people become as rigorous in their news consumption as legitimate journalists are in reporting real news. That means clicking links to actually read the piece and doing so with comprehension. That means taking the extra step to assure yourself that the site you’re forwarding material from is for the dissemination of news and not falsehoods.
Good journalists work extremely hard to report the news as accurately as possible. When they get things wrong, they take responsibility for their errors or are held accountable by their employers. But who holds a reader or viewer or listener responsible for ignoring credible stories or spreading easily verified false reporting? If news consumers want to go after journalists for how we do our jobs, they’d better make sure they are doing theirs. A free press is all of us now.
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