May 3 is World Press Day. What have great thinkers like George Orwell and Hunter S. Thompson said about the role of the press?
We hear a great deal about the importance of freedom of the press. Undoubtedly, when May 3 rolls around, bringing with it World Press Freedom Day, or simply World Press Day, there will be plenty of voices screaming from the rooftops about how vital the press is to democracy, and about how important their role is in our lives. There will be cries of censorship, suspensions, attacks and even murder. Of course, these are very real issues.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, over 1200 journalists have been killed since 1992, more than 450 have been forced into exile since 2010, and nearly 300 are being imprisoned worldwide. But what I take issue with is that many who will scream out these numbers, and insist that their rights are being threatened, are not journalists at all. In fact, some will be wholly illegitimate, posing as journalists and merely pretending to fill that role within our culture, despite a more sinister agenda. Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff.
For starters, what is a journalist?
The role of a journalist, as I understand it, is to be a watchdog on the powerful, and the voice of the people. It is the role of the journalist to gather information “on the ground,” to do their research, to provide the public with accurate information and to explain why that information is significant. To be a journalist, you must be a public witness, an educated and aware observer of “the system” and a voice for those who have none. You must be an educator, a student, an investigator and a writer — all rolled into one. To become a journalist is to accept the great and heavy responsibility of providing valuable information to people who need it, knowing that what you say and how you say it will ultimately reveal your character, and maybe even cost you your life.
Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and editor, winner of the 2011 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism / John Stillwell / AFP / Getty Images
Unfortunately, being a watchdog against the powerful forces of our society has significant risks and drawbacks. Many truth tellers are thrown into prison for lengthy detentions (often without trial). More are forced to pay extensive legal costs even with small (and shrinking) salaries. Many suffer threats, have their reputations destroyed with false accusations and are forced into isolation. Perhaps this is why many eschew journalism for the low-risk, higher-reward jobs of news reader or pundit.
Journalism vs. PR
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, journalism is defined as “writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” Public relations, on the other hand, is defined as “the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution.” The two are incompatible with one another, yet time and again we find the news we consume is provided by the latter, not the former. And that is a problem, especially since it can be so difficult to tell the two apart, partly because of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias essentially means you seek out information that confirms what you already think or feel. The issue with social media platforms, such as Facebook, is that they exacerbate this problem by heavily relying on confirmation bias in order to sell advertising. But the real danger here is that, if you have this tendency, you may not immediately recognize if the information you’re consuming (or perhaps even providing) is biased or downright untrue. And false stories (or blatant lies) have been known to lead to violence, hatred, conflict and war.
So when watching the news or reading an article in a publication, or even a sponsored Facebook post, it can’t hurt to ask yourself:
- Why is this writer or news reader saying this? What do they have to gain?
- Is there valid evidence available that supports what they’re saying?
- Are they getting paid to say this, and by whom? Are there strings attached?
- Who else is supporting this idea, and why?
- And are they making this personal, or are they sticking to tangible, proven facts?
But what about the pundits?
Pundits are not necessarily journalists. If we go back to our dictionary, we’ll find that a pundit is “a person who gives opinions in an authoritative manner, usually through the mass media.” They are not meant to be objective; rather, these professionals are extremely subjective. And while every media organization has some kind of agenda, the pundit most certainly has one. Perhaps they’re trying to sell their book or increase their notoriety. Maybe they’re experts in their field and want to educate others. Or maybe they’re just retired politicians who needed a paycheck, and the mass media came a-knocking. There are infinite ways to become a pundit, but know that no two pundits are created equal and you should double-check their information before sharing it with the world. (There’s nothing more embarrassing than posting something on social media only to have the information be proven grossly inaccurate, am I right?)
So when dealing with a pundit, here are a few questions to ask yourself before you buy into their argument:
- What are they selling, and why?
- Have their statements been proven inaccurate in the past? (This question is doubly true for journalists as well, FYI. Not all journalists are good. Some do lie.)
- Are they on the network’s payroll? Why?
- Whom do they claim to have access to, and is that true?
- Is what they’re saying based on facts and figures, or does this all sound like gossip and rumor to you?
- Are you suffering from confirmation bias? In other words, are you sure you don’t just want what they’re saying to be true?
Is this why comedians are picking up the slack?
Back when I was studying physical theatre and clowning with the theatre community in Chicago, I had a teacher explain the role of the bouffon clown, which is a performance style that relies on the art of mockery. I’m paraphrasing, but she said: “Way back in history, there was only one individual in society who could speak up to the king and the church, and that was this type of clown. Typically, this was a role taken on by the ugliest person in town, and because of their deformed bodies and hideous faces, they were granted freedom of speech. And so they mocked the powerful and, through their art, told the truth.”
Now, I’ve never been able to find evidence to back this story up. In fact, the term bouffon was created by the famed theatre educator Jacques Lecoq back in the 1960s, so there may be little to no truth in such a tale. But there is something beautiful about one individual, through comedy, being able to “stick it to the man” by poking fun at social mores and the corruption of the powerful. However, are comedians, or clowns, to be made responsible for the role of the press?
“I’m as mad as hell.” Peter Finch as Howard Beale in ‘Network’ (1976) / MGM
“The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”
–Hunter S. Thompson
“Truth in comedy” is most certainly a thing; however, it has never been the role of the comedian to demonstrate a knowledge of facts and figures, at least not until recent memory. Instead, it has mostly been their role to critique the human condition and the culture that has spawned it through their comedy. And when a truth has been told, the audience responds with a laugh. The laugh not only breaks tension but builds a form of rapport between the entertainer and their audience, as if to say, “Yes! You get me!”
But it appears to me that as trust in the media and the press weakens, truth tellers, such as artists, are forced to pick up the slack. In a weird turn of events, our politicians and most esteemed members of the press want most to become celebrities, and as a result our comedians are forced to become hybrid journalists, in the desperate attempt to hold someone’s feet to the fire. The problem with this, however, is the vast range of comedic styles and opinions. What makes a Jeff Foxworthy crowd laugh is not the same for a George Carlin audience, just as Amy Schumer appeals to a different audience than Ali Wong does. And Stephen Colbert is very different from Jimmy Dore or Lee Camp. So once again there is confirmation bias, right on down to the things that make us laugh.
So what’s the answer?
Honestly, we’ve only explored the tip of the iceberg. This issue is infinitely more complicated and serious. But if there is an answer, it’s most likely this: support independent news media, or at the very least support those journalists and truth tellers that you trust. The ones who have consistently proven they are honest, truthful, accurate and worthy of your attention. Give your engagement to those who are actually fighting for truth and justice in the face of power and corruption — not just engaged in gossip, rumor or whatever the teleprompter tells them to say.
Show your support for organizations that protect the rights and lives of journalists out in the field, doing the hard work and bringing reliable information into the public domain. Beware of propaganda (“the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”), and always double-check your facts (and what you believe). But more than that, be vigilant, think critically and form your own opinions.
Now, I’m not a journalist. I wouldn’t even dare to put myself into that league, as the journalists I admire work tirelessly for their cause, risk their lives and often suffer because of their work, which they believe in wholeheartedly. I have nothing but respect for true journalists who are fighting the very powerful forces raging against them, and us. But as an artist and a truth teller, I do believe in World Press Day, because at least once a year we should check ourselves and our sources. What do we believe, and why? Who told us that, and why? Who benefits if we believe that? Are my beliefs grounded in fact, or have they been confirmed so many times by the TV, publications and pundits that I simply believe them to be true?
Those are difficult questions we all must wrangle with, especially in the age of spin. But in the meantime, here are some organizations that might help you along the way: The Courage Foundation, Project Censored, Freedom of the Press Foundation and Democracy Now! And journalists: Jordan Chariton, Abby Martin, Michael Tracey, Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Greg Palast, Barrett Brown and Chris Hedges…to start.