By Ruby Samuels
It was late afternoon, right in the middle of midterms and the red-eyed students in my sociology class were just getting into the topic of the day: mass media’s negative influence on social movements. We were not talking about “fake news,” Breitbart or Alex Jones radio. We were talking about the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the four other “corporate” media companies that we were informed have been purveyors of skewed information both nationally and internationally for over a century.
As I sat back and listened to my fellow classmates, some of whom are social activists themselves, speak about the media as a rabid and biased generalized other, I was taken aback. They described unwelcome “swarms” of reporters descending on protests that they participated in. They spoke about how even the most openly liberal and anti-Trump reporters are empowering the president by shining a spotlight on his misdeeds. They spoke of how the Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in American history, only reached front page news because it was all about Trump, the man whose name and hair gets people to read articles. Therefore, they said, protests that don’t explicitly resist the president are not covered. They spoke of how the widespread negative coverage of the antifa movement halts progress against white nationalism. Lastly, they said that journalists cover protests as though they are isolated events, which limits the information that readers can absorb about the political and social context that gave rise to the movement in the first place.
A lot of the points that were made in class this week are valid, but I am still grappling with how journalists could be so mistrusted by college students in an era full of headlines that seem to be on their side (in opposition to the current administration). Media may be somewhat inherently biased– after all, reporters are human beings too– and everyone should learn to be a critical consumer, but I’ve always thought that journalism was a noble and necessary part of democracy. How else can everyone else, who spend most of their waking hours working in their own fields, be made aware of the political, cultural and economic events that shape, however abstractly,the world they live in?
In class, we have also read about zines and citizen journalists with their own publications and distribution methods, who are openly biased and seek to inform the public of their cause. But we still need people whose whole job is to report the news, who are trained in a professional setting to research, report and write about events that their personal ideologies aren’t already tangled up in. Don’t we?
Yes, we have fantastic, well trained, full-time reporters like Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! and Rachel Maddow, who take an activist approach to journalism. But we still need sources that ride the line between parties, that will be listened to by more than the liberals in the preacher’s choir, that can’t be called fake news so easily.
The book we were assigned to read for class that day is called “The Whole World is Watching,” named after the chant of anti-war demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The author, Tom Gitlin, mainly talks about just that– Vietnam protests and the way that major news organizations allied with the Johnson Administration’s pro-war agenda to frame the anti-war protesters as a bunch of riotous hippies. I never got the sense that Gitlin intended to convince his readers that media is the enemy. He just seems to have wanted readers to realize that whatever they read, it’s not the whole truth.
In any case, times have changed. Journalists are still part of an elite intellectual class, which they supply with one version of the truth. As Gitlin wrote: “Simply by doing their jobs, journalists tend to serve the political and economic elite definitions of reality” (pg. 12). But these days, at least, journalists also uncover stories that politicians and certain members of the elite would rather not be shared. Journalists, however, can’t take sides, even when covering injustice and the movements that hope to be the solution. As the New York Times wrote in May:
“The question is which approach is more effective — when The Times looks as if it has joined the resistance, or when it excavates facts without prejudice? In the legal system, it’s the difference between an investigator and a prosecutor….Some readers, alarmed over a Trump presidency, want the newsroom in full combat mode”
I think that recent events show that journalists are not turning their cheek to social movements. Six reporters, for example, were charged with felonies and arrested (four of whom acted even after seeing the consequences faced by the first two) for covering inauguration day protests in January, under the premise that they were violating a Washington D.C. law against rioting. Just a few weeks ago, reporters repeated again and again the date of the deadline for DACA recipients to renew their two-year period of legal status. And what about coverage of the protests that have nothing to do with president Trump?
I’m still left with questions about how to go about doing journalism in a way that maintains the reporter’s role as the white helmet in a war of words. How do journalists cover the news in a way that reveals the structural inequity that leads to protests while also revealing the truth of the other side? How do journalists remain truly unbiased, or reveal their biases without losing readers? What I do know is the less that social activists trust the press, the less free the press can be to uncover the stories that those activists and everyone else need to know.