Tabitha Justice is a student at Marshall University in West Virginia, studying Online Journalism and International Affairs. She is the founder of Coffee Party 2.0's pilot project, Citizens for Media Reform. Tabitha says she hopes her words challenge people to reconsider how they approach and interact with the world. Her personal motto is: "If curiosity killed the cat, I would have perished a long time ago."
by Tabitha Justice
In a previous article I wrote about the aggressive and attacking nature of argument culture in American media and how it has conditioned us to approach the world in an adversarial frame of mind. In that article I discussed that the concept behind argument culture is that the best way to discuss any idea in the media is to set up a debate with people who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as “both sides.” The problem with this type of communication is that it actively negates the validity of alternative points of view, and promotes opposition and polarizing debate over any form of cooperation or cohesive discussion. Almost every aspect of argument undermines the stability of our democracy by disabling our ability to fully conceptualize issues, diminishing proper civil discourse and promoting opposition over compromise. This raises questions as to how argument culture has become an acceptable media standard and why it continues to thrive. While there is no question that the concentration of media conglomerates has played a role in this, I would suggest that there are at least two other factors that have influenced this media degradation even more. One reason is the tightening of the court requirements for a libel case and the other has to do with the elevation of the “star” journalist.
In his book, Feeding Frenzy, Larry Sabato divides modern political journalism into three historical periods; Lapdog, Watchdog and Junkyard Journalism. He refers to 1941 to 1966 as Lapdog Journalism. During this period mainstream journalism was more objective but it also rarely challenged prevailing orthodoxy and accepted at face value much of what those in power said. This era also protected public officials by revealing little about their private lives. The Vietnam War and Watergate stimulated the next period, 1966-1979, which is termed Watchdog Journalism. In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate journalists were heavily criticized for lack of objectivity in their reporting but, perhaps more importantly, many journalists also experienced an emotional burden of guilt believing that they could have prevented or deterred events had they been more aggressive in questioning authority. Reporters thus began to scrutinize the behavior of political officials and through this came the era of investigative journalism. This is also when the first discussion of private lives appeared, although, almost always, in the context of public performance. Then, in 1964, a Supreme Court ruling shook the foundations of journalism and this, Sabato believes, had a large hand in forming the modern era, what he has termed Junkyard Journalism.
On March 29, 1960 the New York Times ran a full-page advertisement titled “Heed their Rising Voices” purchased by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South. The ad did not specifically name anyone but rather criticized the law-enforcement tactics used in southern cities to break up Civil Rights Demonstrations. The city commissioner of one of the mentioned cities, Montgomery, Alabama, took issue with the advertisement and claimed it directly defamed him. He sued the New York Times and won a civil case for $500,000 but the New York Times appealed the case and the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the Times, holding that the Alabama libel law was a violation of the Times’ First Amendments rights.
Additionally, the NYT v Sullivan ruling distinguished that there are different requirements for public and private figures. A private figure is one that has an “ordinary job” and has not voluntarily thrust themselves into a public controversy with the intention of changing public perception or outcome (ex. political and/or social issues). As a private citizen one would have to prove (1) That the statement was false; and (2) That damages or an actual injury to one’s reputation or mental health had occurred; and (3) that the publisher was negligent in his duty to determine the truthfulness of the statement. Public figures were split into two categories: (1) celebrities or people who “occupy positions of such pervasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes” (presidents, congressmen, etc.) and (2) As mentioned above, individuals who had involved themselves into a public controversies. Public figures, however, would additionally have to prove “actual malice” to win a libel suit. Essentially, it would have to be proven that the publisher knew the information was false or they had reasonable inclinations to believe it may be false and acted with reckless disregard for the truth and published it anyway. Because actual malice is almost impossible to prove, news organizations were able to aggressively go after public figures without fear of litigation. (We must also account for the context of free speech. Political and social commentary is the most highly protected form of speech; as a result almost all commentary concerning political figures and/or social issues is basically given a free pass. It is virtually impossible to hold media figures accountable for libel suits in this regard. But this is an issue we will delve more into later.)
Sabato argues this provided too safe of a harbor and created a type of journalism that is “often harsh aggressive and intrusive, where feeding frenzies flourish, and gossip reaches print. Every aspect of private life potentially becomes fair game for a scrutiny as a new, almost ‘anything goes’ philosophy takes hold.” This also elevated the journalist voice and the news became as much about the narration as it was about the news source and in some cases even more so. Thus, the “star” journalist was born. Suddenly the interpretation of the facts became more important than the facts themselves and the reporter began to “question” the politician’s actions and intentions rather than actually question the politician; the journalist interpretation and voice then took center stage. This further evolved into journalist using ideological opponents to interpret and attack politicians’ statements. Politicians and public figures were no longer shown making speeches or discussing issues in-depth but were rather reduced to sound-bites, with media outlets then turning to adversaries and pundits to attack them. Conflict, rather than information, became the predominate theme in political coverage.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can have media that promotes in-depth analysis rather than conflict and opponent degradation but we can only have that if we start demanding it AND understanding it. We are past the stage where we can claim ignorance to the harmful side effects of our angry and divisive media and I want to challenge you to start doing more. Stop watching media personalities that yell degrade and talk over their guest rather than engaging them, this includes some media figures that many of us uphold. Pointing the finger at ideological figures on “the other side” while praising those on your own side does nothing more than encourage this type of media. Reach out to your media figures and ask for more information and less anger and start investigating what the media rules are. Too many of us have just stood by believing that there is nothing that we can do to change things but that is just an excuse to let our democracy decay. We all have a voice, and just as I have realized that my voice can make a difference so too can yours. I have decided to speak out and help spread the message of change; imagine what could happen if we all start speaking out.