Monday, February 25, 2013

Week of 02/25/2013

Newspapers: Journalism or Propaganda?
– by David Matthews 2

There’s something to be said about small-town newspapers… the one saving grace about them is that they are not built on the idea of using scandal and sensationalism to get readers.

I have lived in many small towns – sometimes, to my disappointment – and I’ve been in a few “metropolitan” areas as well, and I can say that there is a difference between your little small-town newspaper and its “metro-sized” counterpart.

The big metropolitan newspaper needs to use big sensationalistic headlines to get the attention of the reader.  The big front page splash, the striking photo, the scandal, the news story that they want everyone to talk about so they’ll buy the newspapers.  It’s Basic Publishing 101: use the cover to get the attention of the readers.  It works for magazines, comic books, entertainment circulars, and, yes, newspapers.

And that’s not to say that the small-town newspapers don’t do that as well when the opportunity presents itself.  But the catch for them is that they don’t have to in order to keep the paper going, mostly because they’re often the only paper for the area.  Sure the folks there can get the nearby “big-city newspaper”, but that paper’s not going to have the local activities or promote the local businesses.  If Miss Bessie’s tractor gets away and runs over a fence and lets a whole herd of cattle loose onto the highway, and that’s really the only thing going on for the week, well then that becomes the big headline story for the small-town newspaper; when the “big-city” counterpart would have that same article buried in the “Local” section while they talk about the mayor’s son getting arrested for drunk driving for the fifteenth time.

What amazes me with small-town newspapers, however, are the number of so-called “experts” that exist in their readership, especially when it comes to the subject of what they call “journalism”.

Now folks, a little bit of a disclaimer here… I’ve worked with small newspapers in the past.  I was a regular columnist for a small-town paper in New Hampshire.  I did articles and helped with the editorial layout for my college newspaper.  I’ve had several articles posted in newspapers in the metro-Atlanta area. Most importantly, as a regular online columnist for almost seventeen years now, I know the difference between journalism and commentary.  I would not call myself an “expert”, but I can say with confidence that I probably have more experience in the field of “journalism” than the so-called “experts” that send letters to those small-town newspapers trying to lecture the editorial staff on that same field.

Quite often these “experts” will be offended not by an actual piece of journalism, but by an editorial or opinion article.  Criticize the stance of a certain elected official and you get a response from the “experts” that claim that what the original author was engaging in is not “journalism”.  Well of course it isn’t!  It’s called an “Editorial/Opinion” section for a reason!  They are engaging in their opinion!  What kind of “expert” in “journalism” are you if you cannot tell the difference between news-reporting and opinion?  I’m guessing it would be someone who watches Fox News on a regular basis and uses that as their measuring stick.

But perhaps more disturbing is the presumption made by these so-called “experts” under what they call “journalism”, specifically that one cannot question the actions of certain elected officials.  One cannot describe said elected official using labels that said elected official does not recognize, such as “right-wing”, “far-right”, “neo-conservative”, or “extremist”.  One cannot supposedly make reference to said official’s religious beliefs or how often said official uses their religious beliefs as a part of their political stances.  According to the self-professed “experts”, these things are not “journalism”, and thus supposedly have no place in the newspaper.

To the so-called “experts” I say this: you are free to engage in your opinion.  That’s the great thing about a country that claims to cherish the First Amendment.  But your right to engage in your opinion does not entitle you to silence the opinions of others just because you disagree with them.

Let’s get brutally honest here… what these so-called “experts” in “journalism” seem to want is nothing less than propaganda, and only the kind that reflects the prevailing viewpoint of the area, which is quite often what they describe as “conservative”.  Yes, talk about Bessie Mae’s tractor mishap with the cattle, and post the church bulletins and movie listings, but don’t talk about the elected congressman for your district unless it’s in glowing adulation of his or her stance and actions.  Don’t question said elected official’s activities or where they stand in an adulterated and outdated political spectrum.  Don’t talk about said elected official’s religious-based statements and policies unless it is in agreement of said statements and policies.  And whatever you do, do not allow a regular columnist, an editor, or even the publisher himself to post anything that does not tow the “conservative” line and reinforce the “conservative” message, because that, supposedly, is not “journalism”.

Well they’re right about one thing… what they consider to be “journalism” is nothing of the sort.  It’s public relations and propaganda.  It’s the same kind of garbage that we condemn in other nations that we deem to be communist or socialist or fascists or just plain tyrannical.  We scoff at the state of media over there, but these so-called “experts” in “journalism” seem hell-bent on demanding it here in small-town newspapers for their own stances.

One of the reasons why America has a Freedom of the Press is to be able to question the status quo, especially when that status quo is doing something wrong.  If the powers-that-be are supposed be representing all of us, then it is our job to call them out on it when they’re not.  The press is supposed to be one of the venues to do that.

Feel free to criticize the people in the press.  It helps sometimes to keep them honest as they try to keep those in power honest as well.  But if you’re going to lecture them on “journalism”, then you best know what the difference is between reporting the news and giving commentary.  And while you’re at it, you better make sure that what you’re trying to claim as “journalism” is not something that you would otherwise condemn in other nations.

1 comment:

BrentSTL said...

Having worked in smaller-town and regional newspapers in the past myself (southeastern Missouri, eastern North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, east-central Illinois), I know exactly what you're talking about David. And I have some memories and stories I can share with you re: the so-called "experts".