As a news junkie all my life I am amazed at what people today perceive as real news. News is available from a proliferation of sources and most people tend to believe that they all report facts. There is a lack of understanding by the public of the clear bias of so many of our news outlets and their reporters. This is accentuated because of the relentless need they all have to fill up 24 hours of airtime or provide material for web sites.
What makes this worse is that there is no longer any personal space granted to celebrities or politicians or for that matter anyone who the media deem a "public figure." When it comes to what is reported or used in the press today anything goes and someone's most personal issues are considered grist for public consumption. Where once politicians' children were generally left alone, today we are reporting on the contract between Mitt Romney's son and daughter-in-law and the surrogate they chose to have their children. The motto of the press has changed from the one that has guided the New York Times for so many years, "All the News That's Fit to Print" to "There is Nothing that isn't Fit to Print."
Whether it is topless pictures of Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, the Romney surrogate contract or CNN's using the private journal of the Chris Stevens, the murdered ambassador to Libya, it seems nothing is off limits to quench the public's insatiable thirst for either salacious news or what was once recognized as personal information. In the LGBT community, the debate has been about outing and many outlets in the past have come down on the side of not outing someone who is doing no harm.
As recently as the early 1960s, the press determined that President Kennedy's active philandering was not important to report on. The press respected Franklin Roosevelt and didn't take pictures of him in his wheelchair and they didn't report on his mistress in whose arms he died. We can assume that they didn't think these stories were relevant to the performance of their duties as commander-in-chief and many still believe they were right. Clearly today the blackout of those issues in the press couldn't happen and we have to wonder if this idea that "your life is an open book" has made us a better or safer nation. Did the years of scrutiny of Bill and Hillary Clinton's private life impact our nation in a positive way? Did CNN's use of Ambassador Chris Stevens' private journal without the permission of his family make our country safer, or was it merely a case of we use everything we have and damn the consequences?
I understand the debate is like the one about the chicken and the egg; do reporters write because people demand to know, or do people only get involved in salacious issues because the press reports them? I believe it is legitimate to question Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on why they chose not to serve in the military but their children's decision on the same issue is far less relevant. If the media were to focus less on these side issues maybe they would have more time to report on the issues that really matter, those that can impact the life and death of people across the globe.
I know we will never go back to the way things were but we really need to demand of at least our mainstream media that they have some sense of decency and accuracy and make the effort to differentiate between news and opinion. Recently the ombudsman of the Washington Post took his own paper to task for putting too much opinion, and sometimes without proper labeling, on the front page, clearly confusing it with actual news. Many print reporters today strive to become TV talking-heads and end up giving their own opinions on the issues they write about and leaving people who read their reports confused about what is opinion and what is fact. Many anchors on cable TV stations like CNN, MSNBC and Fox give strong personal opinions in the middle of reporting a story, or actually slant the report to fit what they want it to say. People then believe they have heard the facts when instead all they have heard is an opinion.
So there is no confusion this column is an opinion and readers can check into the facts on their own time.
This column first appeared in the Washington Blade.