The mainstream US news media must play a meaningful role in preventing the next attempt to overthrow American democracy.

First published in January 2021.

20/20 hindsight of the January 6 failed Capitol Hill riot/insurrection to change America from a democracy to a dictatorship revealed two steps America must take to preserve American democracy. Step 1 happened last week when America inaugurated Joe Biden. Step 2 is restoring news media trust which means implementing three changes to the news media landscape.

The 1st Amendment to the American Constitution gives all news media companies the legal tools it needs to provide transparency into American democracy, but to protect American democracy there must be news media trust. In other words, Americans must trust what the news media is reporting to them. If there is no news media trust the American people are denied their main information source for holding government accountable and maintaining American democracy.

Before the 21st century trend of corporations buying up thousands of independent newspapers, local TV stations, local radio stations and consolidating them under the ownership of less than 25 mega large media corporations, Americans news media trust was so strong that news media outlets were thought of and feared by some as if they were government agencies.

The news media could go places the government couldn’t. It could get people to talk to it that the government couldn’t, in some cases exposure by the news media could offer protection to a citizen that the government couldn’t and in other cases, news media exposure could even offer needed protection to a citizen from government abuse.

Americans are increasingly shutting out all news media because they don’t know which one to trust.

From Ida Tarbell’s investigative reporting of the corporate abuses of John D Rockefeller, leading to the historic breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly, to the Washington Post’s investigative reporting of the Watergate break-in which led to the historic resignation of an American President, the media were effective in protecting American democracy because of the high degree of news media trust the American public had for the news media. Americans trusted and relied on the non-partisan accuracy of reported stories to inform and guide their ability to hold government and corporations accountable.

The model of independently-owned news media companies encouraged news media trust because every city in America with a population of over 100,000 had at least 2 independently owned newspapers. No one newspaper including the majors like, the New York Times and Washington Post, ever had budgets large enough to cover all the major stories. But they all had large staffs of investigative reporters and large enough budgets to do one to two major in-depth pieces a year, pieces that might take 3-6 months of investigative work to develop the story. The collective effort of all the independently-owned newspapers in America guaranteed stories of major national impact would break consistently from different papers across the country throughout the year.

The last time this model worked was back in 2001 when the Boston Globe broke the scandal in the Catholic Church of priest abusing kids. Unfortunately, when corporate America took over independent news media outlets the priority changed from producing fact-based information that informed the public to creating profits for the bottom line of shareholders. News media investigative budgets and staffs were slashed extremely if not eliminated, the 3-6 month time frame for investigating in-depth stories has been reduced to 3-6 minutes of copycatting and re-reporting shabbily investigated stories that erode news media trust.

As a result, the 21st annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that for the first time in American history more than half of all Americans have no news media trust. 56% of Americans agree with the statement that “Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations,” and 58% think that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.”

The best way to ensure that news media trust returns in America are for the following three initiatives to be implemented at all true non-partisan news media operations:

1) Reestablish Wall of Separation

There are two words, based on Journalism Ethics and Standards, a news reporter should never use in their reporting. The two words “I think” should never be used by a news reporter in print journalism or TV broadcast journalism. This is because the two words I think are replaced by the two words I KNOW due to the research and fact-checking investigative work true journalism demands.

The two words “I think” are reserved for opinion journalists who make no claims of objectivity. Therefore their printed or broadcast observations and conclusions are not based solely on facts, they are based on the personal opinion of the journalist which usually is based on their life-experience knowledge, their interpretation of the facts, and their support for a cause or idea rather than cold hard facts.

Before the corporate takeover of America’s news media, there was a clear wall of separation between a news reporter and an opinion journalist. Now due to the combination of the demands of the 24-hour news cycle and the need to produce profits for the bottom line of shareholders, news reporters double as talk show guests, talk show host, podcast host, or guest and use social media. All to opine their thoughts, not facts, on subjects and people they are currently assigned to do objective reporting on.

All truly non-partisan news media outlets should require as a condition of employment that news reporters like CNN’s Dana Bash or MSNBC’s Kirsten Welker be limited to answering fact-seeking questions on the subject or person they are reporting on, and leave the thought or theory-seeking questions and tweeting personal thoughts on a subject or person they are assigned to report on to opinion journalists like Eugene Robinson and George Will.

2) Eliminate Conflict of Interest

The thing that the American news media does better than any news media establishment in the world is being the watchdog for ferreting out and identifying government and private sector conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, they appear to be just as blind to an internal news media industry conflict of interest that has become standard practice.

News reporters whose responsibility is to provide continuing objective reporting on a subject or person as their day job, write books on the same subject or person for personal financial gain as a side job. This more than anything else is the deadliest threat to news media trust because it raises questions like: is the reporter choosing what they are reporting based on a future book contract, is the reporter withholding information the public should know now for a future book, or is the reporter choosing what to report based on recent book sales.

All news media outlets should prohibit reporters from writing books that are the subject of their current assignments and, require that they have not reported on a subject or person for 12 months before they do write a book on that same person or subject.

3) Restore Fairness Doctrine

Before America knew what words like mainstream media, right-wing media, left-wing media, far-right media and far-left media meant or heard the Fox News lie of “Fair and Balanced”, there was something called the Fairness Doctrine that existed. It required radio and TV broadcasters to air contrasting views on the same subject. In other words, both conservative and liberal perspectives had to be given broadcast time by every broadcaster. Unfortunately, following the leadership of President Ronald Reagan the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, within 10 years the Fox News cable channel, presenting political propaganda disguised as news, was created and objective news reporting by all of America’s news media outlets has steadily declined to its current all-time low.

A revamped internet/cable savvy Fairness Doctrine should be voluntarily adopted by all self-considering objective non-partisan news media outlets, all that do should receive tax-free status. For those news media operations that implement Fairness Doctrine practices and are a division of a larger for-profit corporation, the profits the news division contributes to the corporation’s bottom line would not be taxed.

The things about American democracy that everyone panicked about held firm on January 6, enduring the strongest attack on American democracy since the Civil War. The government officials who counted the votes, both Democrat and Republican, did so fairly, the judges who ruled on the vote counting, both Democrat-appointed and Republican-appointed, did so constitutionally, and the Congresspersons and Senators responsible for accepting and certifying the votes from all Americans, both Democrat and Republican, did so with a large majority vote in both chambers.

The small minority of Congresspersons and Senators who voted not to accept Joe Biden’s victory reflected what did not hold firm about American democracy on January 6, and what nobody appears to be panicked about, the failure of democracy’s watchdog America’s news media trust and creditability was nowhere to be found on January 6!

To borrow an infamous line from Donald Trump, there were good people on both sides at the January 6 rally. Good people who were there but that did not participate in any violent acts, verbal or physical, against the Capitol or Capitol Hill Police. Good people who genuinely believed that the election was stolen because that’s what they were told by a propaganda news media, whose goal is to appeal to emotional fears as opposed to informing on the facts.

The real threat revealed on January 6 was the failure of America’s 4th estate, American democracy’s watchdog of impropriety, America’s alarm system to wrongdoing, America’s impartial truth proclaimer informing on whose lying and who’s telling truth. The good people were able to be lied to by the Fox, Breitbart, and News Max propaganda news that the election was stolen because mainstream news media trust did not exist to inform them of the truth.

If CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and all other mainstream radio/TV broadcast and print news media intend to play any meaningful role in preventing the next attempt to overthrow American democracy, they must end the blurred line between fact and opinion, eliminate the personal financial gain conflict of interest, and advocate for tax-free status for any news media that operates under Fairness Doctrine guidelines.

Failure to implement all 3 of these could very well mean the next coup attempt might just succeed because there will be no news media trust to stop it!  

Isaac Newton Farris Jr, Nephew of Martin Luther King Jr, he serves as Senior Fellow at King Center.


Check their Voting Record:

🗳️ Joe Biden

🗳️ Donald Trump

[This piece was originally published in Isaac Newton Farris Jr.’s blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 28 January 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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