How is it that the news can be reported so differently depending on what cable channel you watch or what online news forum you cater to? And why is it that what some people view as legitimate, accurate news can be considered fake news by someone else?
Well, it’s a long story that I will try to summarize here the best I can.
In the larger scheme of things, you probably know that history is generally represented by the conquerors and those who have the upper hand. For example, we understand Europe during Roman times through the eye of the Romans. And we have understood the 15th-century Americas through Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards, although that is changing. In more recent years, archeologists, through the use of cutting-edge technology, are discovering a trove of information about the Mayas, Aztecs, and other ancient American cultures.
Journalism is basically the first draft of history, and it is how we concurrently understand the world around us. With the benefit of hindsight, history writers in the future may have a different perspective of what is happening to us right now. So, as you can see, there are lots of different ways to see the world, and there are endless stories to learn about.
How can you tell if a reporter is telling the truth? Well, before we go there, I want to tell you a story that I think illustrates why there is this ever-increasing gully between what is considered “liberal” news versus what is considered “conservative” news.
President Richard Nixon didn’t like the media. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Nixon wanted to control the media narrative. He wanted Americans to think that we continued to gain ground in the Vietnam War, so when the New York Times and the Washington Post began publishing what became known as the Pentagon Papers, Nixon was furious.
Someone from inside the Pentagon named Daniel Ellsworth leaked these classified reports to trusted sources in the media because he believed that what President Nixon was doing was wrong. Ellsworth had been to Vietnam, and he had seen soldiers die in battle. He knew that our country was not gaining much traction in the war, even though it had been extended for more than a decade. The Pentagon Papers revealed that, all in the name of fighting communism, the war continued as a way build American patriotism — and for Nixon to win his presidential elections.
Now, I should clarify that Nixon ultimately resigned from his second term because of a different scandal called Watergate. But from the Nixon presidency, there emerged two different parties — those who felt that patriotism was supporting their President at whatever cost, and those who felt patriotism was supporting the U.S. Constitution and the people.
I should clarify that Nixon was not the first American President to want to control the political narrative in the country, and it was not the first time that a newspaper had published something that elected politicians didn’t want people to know — I will save my discussion about an early 20th-century book called “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair for another time. But the media divergence during Nixon was really the big bang for what we are experiencing in the media today.
As a rule of thumb, Fox News and other American conservative media outlets support Republican Presidents and their narratives. The mainstream media seek to report the news based on facts and verifiable news sources with the attitude that liberty and justice is for all, despite your color, religion, or lifestyle preference. Ask yourself whether you would rather someone tell you what to think, even if it’s not the truth, or would you prefer to know the real truth, even if it’s not sugar-coated?
So, in getting back to the question of how you can distinguish who in the media is telling the truth — we will need to talk about the difference between the news and political commentary. The news is the raw facts, where political commentary represents a reporter’s, or a commentator’s, opinion about the news.
Sometimes commentary can be interwoven into a news article, which is called media bias or slant. Commentary that is separated from the news reporting in the form of an editorial in a newspaper is more appropriate. Most often these days though, we get our news from cable TV or YouTube, where the news and commentary are often blurred together. Commentary makes the news so much more interesting, and it improves TV ratings, where viewership means revenue. Cable and internet-based news organizations, therefore, have accepted commentary as a business need, even though, from a truth perspective, it is at our expense.
Unfortunately, “conservative” and “liberal” media sources have become more and more polarized in recent years, to the point that they are practically in parallel universes at this point. That means we are forced to choose between facts or alternative facts.
I can distinguish which news organization is telling the truth based on their track record and my own research of verifying the news from several sources. No publication or cable news station is perfect — they are all influenced by corporate goals and policies. Purity in the news world doesn’t exist, and I will be the first to tell you that individual reporters are human beings that each come with their own set of biases, but the more you are aware of what those biases are, the more you can filter those things out and come at the best version of the truth available.
You probably don’t research the news as deeply as someone like me, who has a degree in journalism, and I don’t expect you to. But I do request that you keep up with the news — now, more than ever, it’s important to stay informed because very critical things are happening, especially on a national level, things that greatly affect us, and you need to have your own educated opinion about what you learn from the news.
For more information on the media, check out my post on Gaslighting.
Emily Olsen is a professional writer who studied journalism in Bakersfield, California, and at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She also has a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Phoenix. She is fascinated by media bias, political commentary, and how the news is reported.