Calling Balls and Strikes
Fairness in reporting is much needed in today’s world.
I was in my second or third week at my first gig at a major daily newspaper, and was feeling fairly proud of myself about hitting the big time when the voice boomed over the newsroom like Foghorn Leghorn (look him up, kids).
“Pennington!” bellowed the managing editor, a stodgy guy in his mid-60s who was chomping on a bitter cigar clinched between his teeth. “Get your arse over here!”
It was the closest I’ve ever come to a near-death experience. I slowly made my way across the newsroom to his corner office, past my new coworkers who were smirking and chuckling at the same time. I picked up my pace when I got closer and saw the red in his eyes.
In his hand was that morning’s newspaper, turned to my article on a zoning issue in a small suburb of the city. For the next 10 minutes, he berated me about an error in the spelling of one person’s name in the story. More importantly, he felt the story overall had a bias against the town and wanted to set me straight that slanted news had no place in modern journalism, not in the 1980s, by golly. He ranted on about calling “balls and strikes” as he put it, meaning don’t take a side in an argument and just call it like I see it. And he parted with one bit of wisdom that has never left me about fact checking and the news media:
“If your mother says she loves you,” he shouted, “get it confirmed!”
And there it was, the nexus which summed up all my years of journalism school and working in small weekly papers and on to the major dailies — get your facts straight and call balls and strikes.
Sadly, as we head into 2020 with the current political and social climate in distress, the journalism industry in which I have spent my last 30+ years seems to have fallen all over itself to neglect those two basic principles which have guided us for 244 or more years. Pick up any newspaper these days or, heaven forbid, watch anything related to news on television and what you won’t find is unbiased reporting, and nothing at all that smells like fact-checking.
It doesn’t matter whether you are red or blue or any shade in between, it happens to both sides and it is the world in which we now live. Most of what we are told as a nation by the news media is not always the truth, or it has a deliberate slant to fit the need of the audience to which it serves. Fox News and CNN do it, as do major networks and the large daily newspapers. You can smell the bias before the third paragraph, you can pretty much guess how the story will turn out, and the people editing these articles seem to have no sense of fairness and asking a reporter to “stick with the facts.”
We can blame most of this on the internet, which obliterated newspapers in the late 1990s. The Washington Post reports that circulation of daily papers in the U.S. fell from 60 million in 1994 to 35 million in 2018, and ad revenues dropped from $65 billion to $19 billion in the same time period. As the number of newspaper jobs fell 40% in the same time period, many seasoned and talented people left the industry and, over time, were replaced by those who never grew up watching their parents get their news from the morning or afternoon paper. It seemed overnight that a new brand of journalism developed that encouraged speed over fact-checking, promoted bias over integrity, and gave a voice to many who are clearly not skilled enough to report the world’s major issues in a fair, impartial way.
You can blame the internet, but the finger should be pointed at all of us who allowed this to happen. We got lazy. We didn’t demand more. We didn’t challenge. We threw up our hands and said, “Whaddaya gonna do about it?” and walked away. We got what we deserved.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” That’s about as perfect a statement as you want to read these days. What it says is that the government cannot interfere in the news and information that is disseminated to the public. However, it says nothing about what citizens can do about these freedoms we have given the press. With freedom comes much responsibility to act in the best interest of all, which includes demanding that what we are told and what is reported on is fair and impartial. All media outlets have owners, and those owners have shareholders, and when we stop propping up those outlets which treat their responsibility to adhere to the basic tenets of journalism with disdain, then we can let them know about it.
Let’s hope one day we do that. And we can watch the film at 11.