In 1972, two young reporters for The Washington Post—Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—were assigned to cover a certain break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s office in the Watergate hotel. Their ongoing investigative reporting made the country aware of the dirty deeds of the Nixon administration and prompted a Federal investigation into the Watergate scandal.
Today, Woodward and Bernstein are discussed in high school history classes like a pair of superheroes–like Batman and Robin–and that’s exactly how we ought to think of them. In fact, American journalism and American superheroes have quite the history. Many of our most iconic American superheroes were journalists by day. That’s because journalism, when done right, is a good thing, and Americans used to know that.
Journalism is one of our greatest weapons in the fight against corruption. American reporters have exposed injustices from the Vietnam War, the Catholic Church, the Healthcare system, Guantanamo Bay, prisons, Hollywood…the list goes on. That matters. Injustice can’t be fought if it’s never exposed.
Imagine if Nixon had successfully convinced the public that The Washington Post was fake? Or if the Pope convinced Catholics that the The Boston Globe lied about the sex abuse scandal? When we stop trusting our journalists, we allow crimes to continue.
Right now, the Trump administration is facing a Federal investigation with implications even bigger than those of Watergate. Trump is going to try to convince you that whatever you hear about that investigation is not true. He’s going to continue to slander established media outlets. He’s going to tout “alternative media” outlets instead. He’s going to try to confuse you until you’re not really sure what’s going on at all.
Nixon tried to do the same thing, but he ultimately failed to convince America to turn its back on the press. Trump, on the other hand, seems to be succeeding. What’s changed? The answer is obvious: The Internet. A Google search for “Donald Trump” will bring you about 250 million results, in less than a second. That’s a lot of information. Some of it is true, some of it is partially true, some of it is completely fake, and some of it is opinion disguised as fact. All of us have lives–jobs, families, friends, responsibilities, hobbies. No one has the time to sort through all 250 million of those results. In our digital age, people want answers, and they want them fast.
So what are you supposed to do, as a person who’d like to be informed? The truth is out there, but so are thousands and thousands of lies, and even more thousands of twisted facts. Plus, if Trump is to be believed, you can no longer trust the mainstream media outlets that once reported so valiantly on the Watergate scandal.
Well, there’s good news: Trump is wrong about the mainstream media. The Washington Post today is just as trustworthy as it was when it exposed Watergate. You can trust The New York Times. You can trust CNN. You can trust NPR. Are these news organizations perfect? No, because they’re staffed by humans who are capable of mistakes. But when a mistake is made at one of these organizations, it is corrected, often with an apology.
We know these organizations are trustworthy because they follow the Code of Ethics developed by the Society of Professional Journalists. According to that Code: “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” Each of the news outlets mentioned in the above paragraph have their own ethics and standards that are based on the SPJ Code of Ethics. The goal of each organization is to report the truth, as objectively as possible.
Is the mainstream media completely objective? No. Again, there are humans behind these news sources, and humans come with individual experiences and beliefs that are impossible to completely ignore. But when a journalist is hired by The New York Times, she knows she’ll need to be as objective as possible in her reporting. Her editors will review her stories not just for grammatical errors, but for bias, too.
The only space where bias is allowed in mainstream news organizations is in the Opinion & Editorial section. When people describe The New York Times as a liberal publication, they’re only correct in that the Times publishes mostly liberal opinions in its opinion section. However, those opinion pieces are clearly labeled as opinion. The news section of The New York Times does not allow for bias or opinion. It presents only facts. The Wall Street Journal is another high-quality news source. It’s Opinion & Editorial section publishes mostly conservative viewpoints, but it’s news section publishes the same facts you’ll find in The New York Times.
People speak of “mainstream media” and “alternative media” like it’s just another personal preference. Some people prefer mainstream music, while others prefer alternatives to the most popular songs. Some people wear mainstream clothing styles, while others prefer alternative styles. That’s fine–it’s just a matter of opinion. But the media deals with facts. What’s the alternative to facts? Lies. Why would anyone prefer that? Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, or something else entirely, would you really want your political beliefs to come from alternative facts?
I’ll talk about avoiding fake news in a later post, but in the meantime, you can be sure that established, mainstream news outlets are not your enemy. If you want to know whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, you can read all about it in the same newspapers that opened our eyes to the crimes of the Nixon administration. The Washington Post still follows the standards of ethical, honest reporting that brought us the truth of the Watergate scandal. When Trump says that the mainstream media is fake, remember that Nixon said the same thing during the Watergate investigation.