“I have been in almost constant practice as a journalist since the year 1899,” wrote H. L. Mencken in the spring of 1920. He had “held every editorial job that newspapers have to offer, from that of drama critic to that of editor-in-chief,” and the experience had convinced him that the news business wasn’t as bad as its harshest detractors claimed — it was worse.
“The average American newspaper, even of the so-called better sort, is . . . devious, hypocritical, disingenuous, deceitful, pharisaical, pecksniffian, fraudulent, knavish, slippery, unscrupulous, perfidious, lewd, and dishonest.” He would be hard-pressed, Mencken said, to name five papers that conducted themselves as fairly and honestly “as the average nail factory.”
If Mencken were alive today, would his opinion of the news business be less pungent? My guess is it would be even more so. The journalistic sins and scams he was blasting a century ago are still being committed, only now the perps are more likely to have Ivy League degrees and to regard their occupation as a lofty profession. Newspapers still need to attract customers — i.e., readers — and readers still respond to journalism that plays on their emotions and aversions. “At bottom, the business is quite simple,” Mencken wrote. Get readers into a lather over some outrage or peril or bugaboo, then direct their attention to simple-sounding solutions that “make no draft upon the higher cerebral centers.”
Rings a bell, doesn’t it? The Sage of Baltimore may have died long before our era’s media convulsions over gun control or climate change or debt-ceiling “terrorism.” But he had their number back in the 1920s.
Still, where there’s life, there’s hope. A healthy cynicism about the news business is always advisable, but that doesn’t mean bad media habits can never be broken. After all, plenty of things about American life are better today than they were when Mencken reigned. So amid all the ways in which the arrival of 2014 is inspiring pledges of self-improvement, allow me to suggest four New Year’s resolutions for the mainstream news media.
1. Stop pretending to be neutral. Of course journalists have political opinions and ideological leanings; anyone whose job involves closely following public controversies and partisan battles is bound to have strong views about them. Invariably those strong views are going to color the news — all the more so when newsrooms are dominated by journalists who lean to the left. (Or, in the case of Fox News, to the right.) The ideal of perfectly objective news coverage sounds admirable. But it’s hard to play a story straight down the middle when your ideological passions affect the way that story is framed. News organizations should be candid about their biases, and drop the pretense that they don’t take sides.
2. Don’t omit victims from stories about punishing murderers. The penalty for murder is frequently in the headlines — during debates over capital punishment, for example, or when a high court decides whether teenage murderers may be sentenced to life. Too often, when the story is the fate of the killers, the fate of those they killed gets downplayed in the coverage. It should be a standing rule that no story about punishing murderers ever neglects to mention the victims high up in the reporting.
3. Either skin color really matters, or really doesn’t: Make a decision. When George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, the fact that the latter was black and the former was not became an obsessive factor in the mainstream media’s relentless coverage. Yet when Australian athlete Christopher Lane was gunned down in Oklahoma by three teens — two of them black — because they were “bored,” the story barely made the media radar screen. The racial angle was played up in the Zimmerman case with a five-alarm zeal rarely displayed in cases of black-on-white homicide. In cases of interracial violence, should we presume that race was the key factor, or shouldn’t we? The answer can’t be “yes” only when the victim is nonwhite.
4. Detoxify the comment sections. Why do media outlets tolerate the pollution of their websites with poisonous comments from anonymous posters? Feedback from readers is a fine thing, and a rollicking comment section can greatly enrich the experience of following the news. But editors enforce standards of taste and tone when they publish letters to the editor. They should be similarly concerned about the taste and tone of the comment forums they provide. As public discourse grows ever more bitter, here, at least, is one way that news sites can refuse to enable the ugliness.