Not too long ago, I was in the field of journalism. I had graduated with a journalism degree from Sam Houston State University ready to serve justice wherever it was needed. I was ready to bust scandals wide-open and help toss corrupt politicians and billionaires into the slammer.
I was, like every green journalism college student, ready for war. Metaphorically and literally, I was ready to go to war. I wanted to be a war correspondent like so many great journalists that had come before me. America was at war and I was ready to join her.
If not writing for the wartime effort, then I wanted so desperately to work in investigative journalism. I wanted to repeat the Watergate Scandal. I wanted to be Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, more famously known as Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men.”
I had been the Election Editor for SHSU’s newspaper, The Houstonian, won Column of the Year my senior year, written a report on the USA Patriot Act that my professor considered one of the best reports he had read since teaching, and one of my professors complimented me on a paper I had written by asking if I had taken it from The New Yorker. You may be under the impression that this post is about me. You’ll be surprised to know that it’s not. It’s about journalism. It’s about journalism and why I left it. I left it because it was becoming the monstrosity that it is today.
The title of the post mentions “dossier”. Yes, I’m referencing the Trump dossier. The release of this document is the crowning moment in the rapid decline of what journalism has become.
How Did Journalism Get Here?
Some of you may be thinking that this will be a political piece, but you would be wrong (again). This is about journalistic integrity, which is a term that is continually losing its meaning. The value of journalism quickly fades as it tries to compete with social media, tabloids, bloggers, and the truth. The last competitor may seem like a strange opponent, but sadly it has become the biggest.
When I entered into journalism in 2006 as a sports reporter for a local weekly newspaper, the newspaper industry was climbing to the height of its own recession with the rise of the Internet. For some reason, which I still cannot fathom, print media just figured people would always want to pick up a paper or a magazine. Who was going to stay on their desktop all day? People like to read the newspaper and ride the bus or the train or the subway or during a carpool. Mobile was print and print was mobile. But technology was growing quickly and before the newspaper industry realized that the massive tidal wave of online media was hovering right above its head, it was way too late.
SOCIAL MEDIA: THE NEW NEWS
Not only did information become mobile, but it also became instantaneous. Twitter became the news. Tidbits of it. Not full stories. No one seemed to have time to actually read a thoroughly investigated and written article. Something that took time to develop and have the right people sourced. Suddenly, with Twitter and the rest of social media, the news became man-on-the-street and it came down to who could put the word out quickest, regardless of accuracy. If a mistake was made, then tweet the correction or retraction. Sure, it’ll be a little embarrassing, but as long as it isn’t something huge, then all will blow over. So major stories were being broken down into sections of 140 characters or less, and the American people bit. We loved it and that became our news.
Then the comments came into play. People were interacting with the news. The news media became a giddy little Sally Field suddenly exclaiming, “You love me. You really love me.” As the comments rolled in by the hundreds or the thousands, we began to see something very interesting. It was something that we had always known, but never to this extent. Partisanship. Oooooh! A buzzword.
We were creating mini-wars online. A great divide was taking place and journalism as a whole became fine with it. We loved the interaction. The shares. The likes. The hearts. The disputes. The memes. We loved what was becoming the future of journalism, so we decided to exploit it.
We began to utilize this as a method of journalism. Not only a method, but a source. Twitter posts. Facebook posts. They were being placed into stories. Random people being placed into articles as sources as a means to give voice to a particular subject. Speaking of man-on-the-street, this was the easiest method to doing it. You didn’t have to go out and ask, you just trolled through social media and found trolls and used them.
Soon that phenomenon dwindled, but we learned something very valuable. People love drama and controversy. Of course, we knew this long before the Internet came around, but we as journalists never used the idea to push stories. We knew readers loved tabloids, but those were tabloids and that’s not news. That’s garbage. That isn’t worth reading, much less writing.
All of a sudden a light bulb came on in someone’s head and they thought, “Wait a second! What if we combine it all into one?”
It was obvious the reason tabloids continued: people kept buying them. Then we noticed how much interaction tabloid-like headlines garnered through social media. Sell the news and get more readers by writing stories with tabloid headlines. The outlet to really generate this idea became a massive game-changer in journalism: the once well-respected Huffington Post. Once Arianna Huffington sold the news outlet, it turned into an online tabloid with click-bait headlines all over its pages. Once you clicked on a page, you weren’t getting away until you just forced yourself away. Too many quick stories with sensational headlines. The UK has its version with the Daily Mail.
But We Had to Do It
Respected news outlets began copying this media marvel. Sensationalize the headlines so more people will click on the stories. But why does that matter? Why would outlets call into question or possibly ruin their reputation as a news organization? Ah! Remember what I said about the recession for newspapers? It came down to money. Advertising dollars were going away. Why? Because fewer people were reading print media. If fewer eyes are on print media, then fewer businesses are going to pay for advertising, and those who continue to do so, do so on a smaller allocated budget for print.
Online media had to make up for the deduction in print advertising financial gains. Advertising went online, but people had to flip the pages, right? The digital pages, of course. And on each of those pages are ads. Big ads and small ads, although most have small ads. Just check the ads on Chron.com. Most of those are very small and insignificant, but they bring in dollars. So for money and for reporters to maintain their employment, they needed to ensure their readers were reading, or at least clicking on the article. It was the headlines that needed to draw in the reader, and not so much the writing and reporting.
A recent New York Times column stated that “…media companies race to give their readers what’s popular—which is more discernible than ever in an age of ubiquitous data measurement—at the expense of what’s true or informative. And it is all exacerbated when experienced and discerning journalists fall out of the mix, along with the judgment they bring to the process.”
Call it greed. Call it desperation. Call it lack of planning and foresight. Or call it all of the above. The sad fact is journalism had to do it. Right? They had to. When you’re out of options, you choose the only one that seems like an option. In actuality, according to the idea of journalism and the integrity it possesses and the stakes it holds within the trust of the people, it was never an option. Bad reporting. Hiring people with no clue of how to investigate a story. Putting people into the field with no sense of direction, except a good knowledge of how to create controversy through social media. These were all done to alleviate budgetary concerns, keep the publication afloat, and save money on writers, because who needs good writers? Who needs the Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s of the world? They are too expensive because they actually give a damn and actually have a damn clue of what they’re doing. And why pay them? Why pay them when the public doesn’t give a damn either?
Why Doesn’t the Public Care?
It is a good question. The public should care if the truth is being told them. They should care if a news organization is slanted so far to the left or to the right that it creates a major bias in their reporting. But a war began and it started online. It started when the news media noticed something very peculiar going on with its readers. We, the public, were at each other’s throats based on politics and left-right viewpoints. Instead of guiding the views of the American people toward the truth of matters, it simply broke down the floodgates and became enablers of dissention.
It was no longer the pondering penmanship of a “letter to the editor”. It was no longer the emails of readers’ thought-provoking agreements or disagreements with the writer of the published article. Those voices—those few and far between and those that actually took the time to consider the source or the projected or purported idea—were ignored. The ones that mattered were the ones who spewed ignorance and venom, and did so instantaneously. The more vicious, the better. We began to delight in the idiocy and foolishness of our common man because they were so easy to prey upon, merely because they themselves love to prey on others.
NO TIME FOR THE TRUTH
The fact is we don’t have time to know the truth, much less write about it. So we take a tidbit of truth mixed with a bulk of lies or a bulk of omissions and call it journalism. As long as the main part of the story has been presented and the public knows the gist, the media can wash its hands.
You see, every article starts with this: a lede (or lead). The who, what, where, when, and how of a story. The first paragraph should have this. If someone wants to read further, then OK. If not, then at least they’ll have the main idea. But now even the lede is susceptible to manipulation. But as long as it fits into our liberal, conservative, Democratic, or Republican view, then we're fine with it.
This is why the general public is comfortable with knowing which outlets they can trust: Conservatives with FOX and Liberals with CNN (I would add MSNBC as well, but that is such a joke of an organization that I can’t even stomach the idea of suggesting them). When you are able to name the bias of the organization and still utilize them as a source of absolute truth, then there is a problem that is not only ideological, but will definitely become systemic. The media knows this, and as much as professors of journalism and other purists condemn these mentalities as well as how the current media system exploits these mentalities, it won’t kill the monster that we, the public and the press, have created together.
JOURNALISM RECESSION = TRUTH RECESSION
I mentioned briefly about how the newspaper recession hit its height around the time I graduated college. I touched on how the advertising dollars, and the lack thereof, began to negatively impact the integrity of newspapers and journalism as a whole. Here are some numbers I found in an article by Journalism.org:
Over the past 10 years, the workforce in the newspaper industry has shrunk by 39% (20,000 jobs).
The year after I graduated, advertising revenue dropped by 7.3%, followed by another 7.6% decrease totaling 14.9% in 2008, and then the bottom nearly fell out in 2009 when it hit a 26.6% decrease.
Of course, as the revenue numbers fell, the circulation numbers fell too, especially during that particular 2007-09 span. The circulation then jumped up into the positive, until the last two (recorded) years, where it fell back by nearly 10%.
Newspapers are taking such a hit that even the Newspaper Association of America, an organization that had this name since 1887, has removed “paper” from its namesake and changed it to News Media Alliance. According to this group, the main reason it decided to change was two-fold: the constant trend to online news media and the constant trend of closing newspapers. Newspaper publications have dropped from 2,700 in 2008 to 2,000 now.
But here is the kicker. As much as the print side of newspapers has suffered, a majority of those who still read newspaper publications do so in print (about 60%). And as the New York Times also stated in that aforementioned article, the new media outlets may tend to be less informative and truthful with reports written by those who are inexperienced and undiscerning of the difference between fact and fiction.
I see the decline in newspapers to run a particular course of cause and effect, like this: Decline creates less competition, and less competition means readers have fewer options for news, and fewer options for the news means that the news can be manipulated much easier. It’s called checks and balances. Journalistic competition creates that within the industry.
NATURAL CHECKS & BALANCES: THE PRESS AND THE PUBLIC
The speed of social media indirectly created a demand for journalism to be just as fast. It created the constant need to produce at a rate that is news, but not journalism. There is a difference between news and journalism, just as there is a difference between the press and the public. Unfortunately, the lines that divide these continue to be blurred into one and now the methods of which we once checked each other have dissolved.
It is not about friendship, the press and the public; but it is about a relationship. The purpose of this relationship is for the public to demand the truth be told by the press and the press to tell the truth about the public. The press has always been the public’s protector. Its watchdog. Now the press has evolved into the public’s best friend. Its pet that craves affection over integrity.
This recent, and hopefully soon-ending trend has created one-sided journalism for two vastly different groups. Left readers and Right readers. In this new world of journalism, publications and other media outlets have come to the conclusion that readership and viewership will always exist because of the public’s preferences. These outlets, as long as they stick to a side, will always have readers—regardless of inaccuracy, purposeful misinformation, and omissions of facts. As much as the press has continued to cater to the public (political preferences regarded), the public has catered to the press with bad journalism. Ignorant, arrogant, or just stupid readers have allowed for safety in this practice. This type of journalism has been allowed and oftentimes encouraged, which is why the divide between Left and Right publications is now gaping. A massive canyon officially dispelling the myth that journalism is blind and non-preferential; the myth that once, and not very long ago, was true.
THE DOSSIER: BREAKING THE CAMEL’S BACK?
On January 10, Buzzfeed, an online media platform that has been trying to become a reputable news outlet, released what is now known as the "Trump Dossier". The 35-page unsubstantiated, unverified, and error-filled dossier focused on Trump’s alleged ties with Russia and the Kremlin, and “golden showers” with Russian prostitutes. The document was so illegitimate that even BuzzFeed’s editors took exception to it. Just read how they describe it below:
But that didn’t stop them from publishing it. So why would a media outlet publish such explosive (to use their own words) material? The writer of the article explains below:
“Americans can make up their own minds about allegations…” It almost seems preposterous to leave it up to the American people to make up their own minds about something so incredibly damaging, or at least purposed to be incredibly damaging, as well as unverifiable, and about who will soon to be the most powerful person in the nation and the world.
But is it so preposterous? Not really. The news organizations have been watching us make up our own minds about allegations in so many high profile stories over the past number of years. They have seen us choose sides so unequivocally regarding our liberal and conservative leanings that there was no doubt that millions would run with the story as truth.
The immediate reaction from the news community? Condemnation. Even the tabloids are expressing their disdain. In a recent Observer opinion piece by Liz Crokin, she said that “the dossier would never have seen the light of day at Star, National Enquirer or any of the other much-maligned tabloids” where she once was an editor and reporter. Even CNN condemned the release of the dossier, although quite hypocritically, since they were the first news organization to leak the supposed Trump-Kremlin connection.
But there was a reason why this publication felt free to publish the story 10 days away from the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. Was it a last ditch effort for impeachment? A final toss in this great political mudslinging contest? A belief that this information was actually true and legitimate? I think the answer lies in none of those possibilities.
This dossier was released because BuzzFeed simply felt that it could. That the inappropriate was quite appropriate. BuzzFeed had been witness to the continual decline in journalism ethics and integrity. They had been witness to the acceptance of one-sided journalism by the public. What recourse would there be in a world where now there is no recourse? When lies become the truth, how is anyone going to know the difference? More importantly, will anyone care about the difference? From BuzzFeed’s perspective, the risk wasn’t nearly as looming as it should have been.
I remember asking early on when I first started in journalism what I was to do if I made a mistake in a story. Something that needed to be corrected. I was told to do what was always done. Print a correction or a retraction. Corrections, however, are rarely noticed in the grand scheme of explosive stories. No one reads retractions. They only remember the stain that was left.
Journalism has a stain on it that has been seeping into its threads for more than a decade. It is noticeable even from a far distance, yet ignored due to its political and social color schemes. Sadly, I doubt even the righteous indignation witnessed after the release of this document is strong enough to wash it out. This release of such a document, hidden behind the guise of enabling Americans to find the truth on their own, just might be the final straw that breaks journalism’s back. I pray that is not the case. Journalism is, or at least once was, the great and noble practice. Perhaps BuzzFeed’s colossal failure will be a stepping-stone towards reconstructing journalism’s trust factor. But it is just a stepping-stone, as it is very obvious the practice has a very long way to go.
Since 1972, Gallup has taken an annual poll of the public’s trust in the media. It has taken a mighty toll just in one year’s time from 2015 to 2016. The numbers shown here are rather astounding.
As these trends march on, the individual will continue to further self-regulate their own version of the news, journalists will continue to perpetuate their own version of journalism, and the truth will ever so politely stand off to the side awaiting to be brought back into the conversation.