06/09/2014 11:14 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Challenge the News, Do Not Condemn Them

Kofi Annan in a recent dialogue of The Elders in Oxford pointed out that watching the news sometimes feels like watching a soccer game. You choose your side and push the opposition. Furthermore, Annan says that (political) leaders get caught up in it. He does however emphasize that he's challenging the media and is not condemning them. Martti Ahtisaari, his fellow Elder, even suggested: "The role of the media has changed dramatically, sometimes creating conflict when it's not there."

In 2004 Jon Stewart was a guest at a CNN program called Crossfire. He stated we need help from the news media and instead it's hurting us. He also mentioned that debate shows like Crossfire have a great opportunity to actually get politicians of their marketing strategies. Jon Stewart took over as host of The Daily Show in January of 1999 from Craig Kilborn. From then till now his critic on the handling of the news by the large media organizations has only grown. Summarized Stewart's criticism is that the news is often too biased, theatrical and full of sensationalism.

Philosopher Alain de Botton's latest book on the news created some discontent in the British media. At least, that is the image that I got when I googled the reviews of his book, The News, A User Manual. Off course, one has to be open to criticism of the work delivered. Philosophers, journalists and bloggers alike. If I truly wish you to be skeptical of the opinions of others, then I have to permit you to be skeptical of mine as well. The reviewers of the British newspapers may be right that it is not De Botton's greatest work, even if so, that doesn't mean the news media are just doing fine. Far from it. And those journalists who are slamming the door on De Botton, and other critics of the news, are missing an opportunity to have a constructive dialogue on the news and its role in our society. In my view, that's exactly what De Botton is trying to provoke. There's a major difference between being a good listener and agreeing with everything you hear. I myself am still practicing my listening skills. It seems that the better I get at listening to others, the more I have to tell. It sharpens my own mind and world view. People I do not agree with (at first) make me think. I find this wonderful.

So far the criticism on the news I have mentioned is not from the news media themselves. That's about to change. In a commencement speech, out of 2013, Carl Bernstein spoke frankly on the role of the news media. He mentions two rules which should inform journalists what to do. These rules have larger implications for a country, for a culture and for us as individuals. The first rule of Bernstein is that the press exists for the public good. Not to make money, not to entertain and not merely to create controversy. The second rule of conduct for the media Bernstein suggests is to give the best obtainable version of the truth. He warns for political and ideological warfare at expenses of (inter)national interests. Nicholas Kristof wrote an entire column on the intellectual deficit in public debate, or even worse a lack of wisdom. He called upon university professors to get more involved in our public dialogue.

"I wish I didn't have to cover it." This was a remark made by CNN's Chris Cuomo with regard to 'the Beyonce elevator story'. A general sentiment that lives among many heartfelt journalists. Rob Wijnberg was editor-in-chief of a popular Dutch newspaper called NRC Next, until he couldn't take it anymore. His main goal was not to sell newspapers, but to give thoughtful and reflective news items. With this purpose Wijnberg crowd-funded his own online newspaper, The Correspondent. At this moment in time De Correspondent has a subscriber base of 24,000 people, which is a lot for a new player in a very competitive arena. In September of this year this online newspaper will celebrate its first year of being in existence.

On Intelligence Squared, a forum for debate and intelligent discussion, there was a very interesting debate on smartphone journalism. Basically, everyone who's not a journalist filming things with their phone and putting it in the public domain. Journalists in the program warned for this type of 'reporting', because the images shown could be incomplete and distort the view of what was actually happening. The reflection of a journalist to look from a distance, to interpret what's shown, to show both sides of a story, to put what's shown in a bigger picture or context, to talk about what cannot be shown, and so on, is under pressure if the reporting is done by an unprofessional or someone with a particular interest or goal with the particular news item. In other words, journalists have a crucial role to play in a healthy functioning democracy and society. And this is exactly the reason why I think we should have a serious and constructive dialogue on how the news media are fulfilling their public role and duty. Since this is very important we need to give ourselves the time to work it out. So, don't give up if the answers don't come immediately. Please, consider the following advice of John Cleese:

You know I mean, if we have a problem and we need to solve it, until we do, we feel (inside us) a kind of internal agitation, a tension, or an uncertainty that makes us just plain uncomfortable. And we want to get rid of that discomfort. So, in order to do so, we take a decision. Not because we're sure it's the best decision, but because taking it will make us feel better.

Well, the most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort for much longer. And so, just because they put in more pondering time, their solutions are more creative.