Spinning is sweeping the news. I don’t mean the healthy new exercise of riding a stationary bicycle. I mean the profoundly unhealthy practice of twisting the truth to mislead us into supporting the spinner’s political agenda.
Of course, spinning is just a new label for an age-old strategy of persuasion. We have always expected TV commercials, carnival barkers, and door-to-door salesmen to exaggerate, hide, or otherwise mangle the truth in order to coax us to spend our money on their products. More recently, we have learned to expect our political leaders to adopt partisan positions on every possible issue, subordinating facts to ideology, truth to political advantage. We can no longer believe even the basic biographical “facts” that they claim qualify them for office.
Pitchmen and politicians make their living by selling themselves or their products. We expect to discover a few liars and frauds, like the investment crook Bernie Madoff or Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk, and to be skeptical about what the others say. But I find the increasing drift of media news away from factual reporting into constant spinning to be dangerous to our national health.
Until very recently we could rely on television news to deliver information that we need to make our own decisions. Journalists were professional reporters, seekers after the truth and tellers of the true stories they found. The division between news and opinion was always clear. I don’t believe that complete objectivity about controversial political issues is possible, but we consumers of news could at least expect that those who delivered the news were trying their best to communicate truth.
Those days are over. Cable networks vie for audience share by promoting political agendas. Fox News in particular has succeeded commercially by openly promoting a biased, often misleading, sometimes deliberately untruthful version of the “news”. Keith Olberman of MSNBC is on his way toward the same destination, news as entertainment, journalist as partisan persuader.
I want to raise my small local voice against these trends. In today’s complex globalized world, we need reliable news more than ever. We need objective information on science, politics, the environment, and the economy. We expect sports reporters to tell us the scores of last night’s games, not to openly promote their favorite team as the best and denigrate another team’s players without ever giving us the results. Why shouldn’t we expect the same thing in our more important national news?
Even opinion columnists like me have a public responsibility to seek the truth. We abuse our privilege if we make up evidence, do shoddy research, or pretend that our opinions are facts. We should seek less to persuade than to offer one person’s perspective based on accurate data and logical thinking.
That’s the only way for the media to recover the trust of Americans. I sat next to a lady on an airplane who said that all newspapers told lies, that nothing they published could be believed. I think she’s wrong, but the media are to blame for their own unbelievability. If most Americans decide just to believe whatever they want, or whatever some radio ranter or cable commentator says, we’ll never be able to solve the real problems we face, or even know what they are.
Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).