By Tom Ehrich
When the media descended on, say, Ferguson, MO, not all had the same objectives.
A few, like The New York Times, went to provide objective coverage of an important event so that the public would be informed and the various players held accountable.
More went to harvest fodder for their partisan and ideological agendas. Whatever they saw in Ferguson was filtered through that agenda and served its purposes. Think Fox News. You could gain some understanding of our times by watching the partisans glean and distort. but you wouldn't gain insight into the events themselves. Process isn't reality.
Many went to be seen -- to have a lively Twitter feed, for example -- and to justify their existence.
Without the first media -- good old news reporting -- our democracy would unravel. Democracy always depends on an informed electorate.
Our political class resents The Times and its principled ilk (Washington Post, LA Times, Wall Street Journal reporters, and a few others) and constantly accuses them of slanting the news. We can ignore such complaints. I don't know any reporters in the world who work harder than Times reporters to interview actual people, examine actual documents, press the powerful for honest answers, and present, sometimes with great boldness, a reasoned, fair and accurate account.
Look at the Times' extensive coverage of brutal workplace conditions at Amazon. They interviewed over 100 people, and they can document every fact and opinion they recorded, especially the ones that self-protective Amazon managers want to discredit.
Honest news reporting is often inconvenient for partisans and scoundrels. That's precisely why we need it.
I once ventured into the coalfields of West Virginia to interview the men who actually dug coal and the families who were held in virtual bondage by coal operators. What I found wasn't the story that coal bosses were telling. That's why the story needed to be told.
Other Wall Street Journal reporters were reporting on working conditions at a Chevrolet factory outside Cleveland and safety problems with General Motors cars. When a GM executive went to Journal editor Vermont Royster and threatened to pull the company's extensive advertisements if the Journal didn't back down, Royster told him, "Then pull your damn ads!"
When I studied at Columbia Journalism School, a professor and former CBS producer named Fred Friendly told about Edward R. Murrow and the unrelenting political and financial pressure he and CBS faced for disclosing the bad behavior of Sen. Joe McCarthy. It was touch-and-go whether CBS would cave. They stuck by Murrow and became the most trusted TV news provider. Whether CBS would make the same bold decision today is less clear.
In these divided times, and with media available 24/7 in every conceivable form, many people choose the news they want reported to them. If the news is inconvenient, it means they haven't chosen well. This is a sad development for American democracy. It truly does matter whether the police in Ferguson had reason to shoot Michael Brown or were an out-of-control, poorly-trained band of rogue white cops.
We need media that are trustworthy, not entertaining and not politically attuned to our uninformed opinions.