It is not unusual to hear complaints about the “media,” referring of course to the extensive communications industry in this country. Some criticism involves entertainment. Much has to do with news coverage.
We have come to an unfortunate state in this country. In many respects, it is our own fault. The ideal of American journalism is, and has been, objectivity and impartiality. Serving this ideal, however, are human beings, and no human being is infallible, and very, very few have an absolutely total grasp of a situation, especially if the issue at hand is a complex economic or social question or a hotly debated political issue with many angles and implications.
Reporters and editors, even if committed to this ideal of journalism, suffer from the limitations every person experiences. Thus, reports may show either ignorance of this or that point, and indeed they may reveal bias, usually founded on applying to one situation’s circumstances that relate to another.
For instance, in one diocese, diocesan finance authorities had reason to suspect that money unlawfully was being taken from a particular parish’s funds by an employee, and the pastor was an accomplice. The bishop of the diocese questioned all involved, and then he authorized the diocesan finance office to engage an independent certified public accountant to conduct a complete audit of the parish books.
While this audit was underway, the local newspaper and television station reported what was happening. When contacted, the bishop confirmed that the audit was occurring, but he declined further comment until he had the accountant’s full report in hand.
A columnist in this city’s daily newspaper blasted the bishop for succumbing to the temptation to cover up crimes committed by the clergy, just as was the pattern in the sex abuse crisis!
The Church at times cannot win for losing. Of course, the bishop would not accuse anybody of anything until he had proof that something illegal had taken place. He hardly was sweeping anything under the rug. He was trying to get all the facts.
So, bias may be a problem, and it hardly is confined to news about the Church.
Still, regarding newsreporting with a strong dose of opinion, the American ideal of objectivity in journalism is being compromised, but it is because we as a society are demanding it. We want to hear what we want to hear, and we consider what we want to hear as gospel fact.
Accommodating personal opinion, and the application of opinions to voting or comment, are what democracy is all about. But what has become of open-mindedness or cold intellectual curiosity?
Readers, or viewers, seem quite ready to question the authenticity of a news story, but they are much less eager to challenge their own attitudes.
It all affects the media because in this country mass communications is private business, in the sense that it is not publicly owned and funded by taxes. Just as the manufacturer of any other commodity has to appeal to as many people as possible to achieve a profit in sales, so newspapers and the telecast news providers more and more must give increasingly highly opinionated readers or viewers what they want to read or hear.
This is not a healthy development for our country. Strong opinions are part of the American tradition, and this is good.
The danger is that in all this the function of American journalism is being diminished. In our system, the press always has played a key role. It has been the watchdog. It has blown the whistle. If this role evolves into a mere opening for bias, so very, very much will be lost.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.