What happens when journalists meet principles? They stand on them—and sometimes tromp all over them.
It is remarkable that journalists, usually curious generalists reporting on many things they didn’t learn about in college, often aren’t inquisitive enough to study serious Constitutional scholarship before expounding their take about the individual rights codified in the first five amendments.
They’ll spend months investigating unsolved crimes or shifty politicians hoping for a revelation. When it comes to current events, they’ll dig as deep and carefully as an archeologist. But when it comes to the foundation of our nation, it’s more like playing in a sandbox.
Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold couldn’t resist shooting himself in the eye last year with a Party Popper gun, requiring an ER visit for embedded confetti and a swollen face. In psychiatry, we call this impulsive self-destructive behavior. Referral to the National Institute of Morons was his own recommendation.
Ryan Reilly, Huffington Post Politic’s “Justice Reporter” at Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 thought he’d found rubber bullets. Credit him feeling “boneheaded” to learn they were foam earplugs.
And, again for the Washington Post (wonder why?), Callum Borchers realized he’d been snookered by South Carolina State Representative Mike Pitts’ H. 4702, the “Responsible Journalism Registry Law”. Rationalizing, he argued that “You can’t impose a uniform standard across the entire Bill of Rights.” And I thought that was what strict scrutiny was for.
The average journalist knows about as much about firearms and their proper use as Camp Perry contestants know their stets from their paras. It is pleasant to see their egos deflate.
Representative Pitts may be on to something. His proposal would require “a criminal record background check, an affidavit from the media outlet attesting to the applicant’s journalistic competence, and an application fee in an amount determined by the office” in order to qualify to work as a journalist in South Carolina for a period of 2 years, renewable of course. Disqualifications would include having committed “libel, slander, or invasion of privacy”; “a felony” relating to journalistic activity; or, the best part, if “as a journalist, the person has demonstrated a reckless disregard of the basic codes and canons of professional journalism associations, including a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability”.
Formal training requirements should probably be mandated. Can’t have untutored amateurs cluttering up paper and the internet with disagreeable perspectives.
Perhaps a special tax should be assessed on media outlets selling journalism in the state, in order to subsidize the cost of enforcement and underwrite important research into the damage done by bad guys carrying press passes. It may be necessary to restrict the use of word processing software, note-taking devices and use of the phrase “the public deserves to know” only to those especially approved by local authorities in their jurisdiction.
With all the clamor for attention by editorialists, talking heads and celebrity interviewers, it would be best not to let popularity become the measure of acceptable communication. Speech, video and language can be too damaging not to ensure careful production and editing, and engaging in more than necessary is just antisocial.
Bad words matter, written and spoken. Assault words must be outlawed—that is, any that feel harmful to any listener. That will help keep down the dangerous spray of words.
No newsperson should need to use more than, say, ten minutes or sentences per story. Ten words per sentence sounds about right, too. And shouldn’t there be a limit of one story per month?
With all the Fake News out there, the next logical step would probably be to clear the production, importation and purchase of all media with an impartial arbiter such as a state “Responsible Journalism Management Board”. Otherwise, some nefarious cabal will plot to use the media in a vast, wingnut conspiracy to derail the ever-forward march of progress and world fellowship that government is so devoted to realizing.
Google already uses algorithms to select personalized news stories to present to users. Why not take the next step toward unimpeachably objective reporting by using computers to automate news-writing itself? “Newsbots” are coming. Problem solved, future at hand—reassuringly programmed and wired.
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Or maybe it’s just as well to deal with ignorant, self-regarding mouthpieces. They’re human and fallible—but subject to correction by our using the same freedom to speak as they have. No matter the imprecations, truth tends to out, and reason can surmount hysteria, applied firmly and consistently.
The going’s still tough. Let the tough keep going!
[Thanks and h/t to Joseph Wiemann, MD!]
— DRGO Editor Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY, an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.