It hurts my heart a good deal every time I hear someone harshly criticize “the media.” The worst part about it, and the part that hurts the most, is that I totally understand their position. As an aspiring journalist, a self-professed media junkie, and someone who has written articles and produced content for mass distribution in newspapers and blogs, these criticisms can feel like personal attacks. I feel compassion and empathy for the person whose professional output is being lambasted.
I’m a pacifist and a practicing Quaker, which adds another level of discomfort. Historically, one of the harshest critics of the media has been the military. As a pacifist, I won’t ever see “bombing dem [fill-in-the-blanks]” as a good idea, and this puts me at odds with the majority of people I’m likely to meet. Even worse, we’ve seen some pretty divisive developments in the world of media-military relations lately.
“The media” is often used as a vague catch-all for everything that anyone writes or publishes on television, in newspapers, on the radio, and online. Criticizing it is like criticizing the church, science, or “the course of human events.” I usually don’t give these criticisms a second look unless “that damned media” is followed by productive and alternative ideas or calls to drop a bomb on some target. Criticizing the media comes across to me, more often than not, as an excuse to complain about ideas or positions that conflict with one’s own. Complaining has never been out of the ordinary, and I don’t expect it ever to go out of style. So my first question to an outspoken critic would be, “Which media do you have a problem with exactly? And why?”
Earlier this year, the well-respected NBC nightly news journalist and anchor Brian Williams was victim to a career-crippling scandal that surrounded a report he had made, which included false recollections of his experience in the front line of a war zone. He said that the helicopter he was in had been fired upon by militants, when in fact the shots were aimed at a nearby helicopter. It was a clear, high-profile breach of journalistic integrity and ethics that shook the world of journalism. If there’s one thing that strikes close to home in media, it’s irresponsibly recounting actions of the military; doing so can result in preventable casualties or massive shifts in public perception of an operation. A journalist’s words can literally cause hundreds or thousands to kill or be killed.
While I understand the people who criticize Williams, I have to disagree with them. Journalists are real people with real struggles and flaws of their own. An anchor like Williams or Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly—the aggressively confrontational right-wing pundit who has been weathering a similar scandal lately—must put on a well-groomed, well-informed show for the cameras. Their reality is probably closer to Ron Burgundy, protagonist of the 2004 comedy Anchorman: they see crazy things; they are fiercely ambitious and opinionated; they make mistakes and do things they later regret, like anyone else. As hard as a news organization may work to remain accurate and responsible, the world of media can be scurrilous, hard-scrabble, and more than a bit fuzzy on ethics. I don’t know if a few journalists were asleep during their journalism ethics class, but sometimes it seems like anchors aren’t so much reporting the news as they are spewing slanted views of current events or pandering to their viewership. Many viewers have come to think that this is the true purpose of journalism.
But the truth is far more complex. The umbrella words “journalism” and “media” have drastically transformed with the rise of social media, each year covering more and more. The ink-and-paper industry has become a silicon-and-cell-tower industry, and now anyone with a computer and the ability to write can broadcast his or her opinions to everyone. We have seen social media evolve from a resource for small communities to a universally accepted media platform. What’s more, it is used as a tool for up-and-coming political entities and for world-changing social movements.
As social media becomes more prominent, it is being used by those whose understanding of culture and international politics runs radically counter to our own. Whether that be a barbarically violent, radical Islamist movement in Iraq and Syria or an Islamophobic, neo-conservative political group marching in the streets of Dresden, Germany, we can’t prevent online access to the people who frighten and scare us. I see increasing bewilderment, particularly in the peace-loving Quaker community, about how to deal with these malicious elements in a nonviolent way.
It is difficult to provide a reasonable response to that paradox. ISIS has made a point of targeting Western journalists, and PEGIDA in Germany has avoided interviews with journalists. Diplomacy can effectively communicate the international community’s dismay and condemnation of the barbarism and crimes against humanity perpetrated by ISIS, but it sometimes seems that nothing but a full-scale war is the appropriate response to them. It is my belief that a reasoned, deliberate, and ideally nonviolent strategy would be more effective. The problem at hand stems from decades-long, deeply rooted societal resentments. Violent retaliatory action would only exacerbate those.
And on that note, let’s come back to NBC News. As a major network anchor, Brian Williams is in the business of truth-telling. Reliability is his gold standard. His crime of mis-recollection was considered sufficiently heinous enough by his colleagues that he was sent off on a six-month, unpaid hiatus from NBC News. As a pundit, Bill O’Reilly’s gold standard is less his trustworthiness than his personality. He is peddling his piercing ability to cut to the core of an issue, not his grasp of reason and moderation. He withstood his accuracy scandal far more easily than did Williams.
An activist I deeply respect named Kate Gould was featured on The O’Reilly Factor earlier this year to argue in favor of a nonviolent response to ISIS (Gould is the legislative associate for Middle East policy at Friends Committee on National Legislation). For many, what ensued was a media bloodbath that ultimately went in favor of O’Reilly’s no-BS, gut-wrenching approach to journalism. That interview speaks to the most legitimate criticism of modern media: today’s easy access to online publications, 24-hour saturation of media, and the rise of fierce punditry has resulted in a media environment where pacifism and reason are on the skids. And that’s a damn shame because I think a responsible and reliable media is the only effective response to what we face.
I thought the courage and open-mindedness that Gould showed in arguing for nonviolence as a response to unimaginable violence was inspiring. We can only hope to forge a path forward if we are open to reasoned debate with people who scare the hell out of us, and exercise the old-fashioned virtues of compassion and understanding. The media is at its best when it embodies these qualities and works to tell the stories of a diverse and intersectional community, because that is the actual community we live in.
Modern journalism fails to do that pretty often. The media is an immensely flawed, frustrating, and at times horrifyingly trite and fickle institution. But it also happens to be immensely vital, and I’d argue that the behavior of a country’s media reflects the health of that country’s civic community. Only if we find a way to go deeper than the shallow sound-bite can we hope to heal our wounds and forge the future we want. If institutions like NBC News, Fox News, and the whirling maelstrom of Facebook and Twitter are worth anything at all, it’s because they can open our minds to the variety of life’s experiences.
That means taking the time to tell stories: to talk to people who make us uncomfortable, and to find a way to let those stories help heal our wounds. For me, that means giving more than I receive—and yes, that means trying to exemplify the life of that famous guy with a J-name (Jesus, not Justin Bieber). That means listening, reading, slowing down in this hectic society, and understanding that we’re all just trying to live meaningfully in the world in the way that feels best to us.