World, Analysis, Americas

US journalistic legacy on shifting sands

Mainstream US media have been on a slippery slope for a while with numerous instances of misinformation, breach of ethics, opinions disguised as facts, and many other issues

US journalistic legacy on shifting sands

By Dr. Tarek Cherkaoui


It was generally presumed in the past that the U.S. mainstream media fulfilled the functions of the fourth estate, acting as the guardians of democracy and defenders of the public interest. This assumption was based upon the fact that the media’s role is to provide accurate information that is needed to inform the public of their rights and to expose hidden agendas. To reinforce their legitimacy, news organizations were only too happy to refer to the Watergate Scandal, which subsequently led to the impeachment of President Nixon, and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, as evidence for their role as a critical watchdog.

Far away from the idealistic interpretations of the media’s role within society, harsh economic realities have been influencing the field in general, and all the more so in the U.S. The enormous commercialization and deregulation of the media sector have led to concentrated ownership since the mid-1980s. Consequently, big corporations have been massively acquiring assets to the extent that oligopolies are currently ruling this sector. Many people might not have noticed, but 90 percent of U.S. mainstream media across platforms, including television, internet, radio, and print, is dominated by six super-powerful corporations, namely Comcast, Newscorp, Viacom, Disney, AT&T, and CBS.

Such heavy ownership concentration has had a significant impact on the quality of journalism in the U.S. as the news outlets have little room for maneuver when investigating matters that are detrimental to the corporations’ interests. Mainstream media have been on a slippery slope for a while with numerous instances of misinformation, breach of ethics, opinions disguised as facts, and many other issues. Two obvious cases illustrate this tendency: the post-Sept. 11, 2001 environment with the media surrendering to the militaristic gung-ho approach, and the 2003 War in Iraq, in which Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction was never adequately investigated.

The Trump era is now posing similar -- if not greater -- tests to the news organizations’ integrity. The latest anonymous op-ed by the New York Times (NYT) that was published on Sept. 5, 2018 is a case in point. In this instance, an unidentified senior official within the U.S. administration vehemently criticized Trump, claiming to represent the “resistance from within”. Understandably, this article had the effect of a bombshell. On the one hand, Trump’s followers consider that this article reinforces their opinion that the deep state is working against the elected president. On the other hand, Trump’s detractors believe that this piece supports their view that the president is unfit to govern the country since even those working at his side are expressing their disillusionment with his lack of ethics and professionalism.

Regardless of the hype the editorial triggered and the dichotomy it created, this occurrence is an additional indication of the drop in the journalistic standards. It is indeed a very rare occurrence when an editorial is published anonymously. One has to go to the American Revolution to find comparable precedents. At that time, Thomas Paine wrote his Common Sense pamphlets anonymously, while Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay used the pseudonym of "Publius" in writing their essays about the future constitution. More recently =>[1]<=, however, the NYT published a few anonymous opinion pieces, but these were mostly from people outside of power and afraid for their lives =>[2]<=.

The case at hand, though, is different because it involves conspiracy and an illegitimate struggle for power. It also undermines notions like transparency, which is one of the essential ways journalists earn credibility and the trust of the public. So, instead of requesting sources and evidenced data for the claims put forward in the article, as well as giving full considerations to ethical and legal questions, the NYT readily provided its platform for politicking, while asking the readership to have faith on the contents put forward by an unidentified source on the sole basis of the NYT reputation.

Given the way journalistic norms are being routinely discarded, it is not a surprise to note that the American people refuse to provide blank checks of trust anymore. According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact-tank that conducts extensive public opinion polling, the audience for nearly every major sector of the U.S. news media fell in 2017. The evening audience for both local and network TV news declined 7 percent, while for cable it dropped by 12 percent. Meanwhile, the circulation of U.S. daily newspapers, whose audience has been steadily declining for several decades, fell by 11 percent last year.

Such a drop in reputation also extends to the coverage of foreign affairs. According to Professor of Communication Robert McChesney, who researched the state of media extensively, “the corporate takeover of the media led to massive downsizing, especially in regard to foreign correspondents. As a result, when conflicts break out in farthest regions, US news media have no ability to provide context for the story”. Therefore, the quasi-majority of foreign reporting has seen its quality decline, with U.S. news outlets merely aligning themselves with Washington’s official position without fulfilling the fundamentals of good journalism.

This is precisely true in the coverage of Turkey’s affairs, where these news outlets -- for the most part -- regurgitate bias and misinformation without filtering or providing balance. As a result, the U.S. mainstream news organizations are not only seeing their ratings plummet internally but are also losing credibility overseas.

[The writer is Manager at TRT World Research Centre and the author of “The News Media at War: The Clash of Western and Arab Networks in the Middle East.” Cherkaoui is an expert in the field of strategic communications]

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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