A free press is supposed to be one of the necessary ingredients in a free society. It is how the citizens can make informed choices and hold the elected officials accountable. That sounds nice, but a free press only gets us part way there. We are currently experiencing a lot of the problems that a free press is supposed to protect us from. The thing is, the problems aren’t happening because the press isn’t free. They are happening because the press isn’t good at their job. I don’t want to single out any specific press outlets. These are problems with the press as a whole. Some might be better and some might be worse, but none of them are good.
The problems can be narrowed to a few broad categories. First, there is too much news. This problem started with the beginning of CNN and has continued to get worse. One of the functions of a good press is to act as a filter. No one has the capacity to know everything that happens. The press has to make judgements about what is important and what isn’t. They don’t make judgements anymore. They just report everything. And I mean everything. Every news source has stories about everything from Hollywood to Sports to Local Stories to National Politics to Science and anything else you can think of. It’s not prioritized in any way, it’s all just vomited out there. No one can take it all in, so people revert to consuming what they always consume and ignore most of what’s out there. The press needs to start exercising judgement so that as many people as possible see the important stories.
Next, there is no real interpretation happening. There are two types of new organizations out there. One is partisan and one tries to be objective. The partisan ones are just cheerleaders for whichever side they prefer. There’s only one interpretation possible for them. Our guys are good and their guys are bad. It’s not helpful. The ones that try to be objective might be even worse, though. In the interest of being fair, they just report what each side says about a news item. But, not everything has two or more legitimate sides. Climate change is real. Including a climate change denier in a report on climate change isn’t being fair to anyone. It’s misleading and confusing. The press has to realize that most people are not experts in science or law or tax codes or most of the things the press is reporting on. If we don’t get some interpretation, we don’t know what to think. Hearing opposing sides argue with each other doesn’t help.
Third is the thing that gets talked about the most, money. The press is no longer looked at as a noble profession with standards and ethics. It’s just a cash cow. The end goal is to generate revenue. There has always been a tension in the press between telling the stories that need to be told and making money, but we have swung way to the making money side of things. It changes the stories we hear and makes us all less informed.
There are no easy answers for how to fix things. It is a free press after all. They can do what they want. But we have to stop settling for a free press and demand a good press.