Blame the media? Keep looking.

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Everyone blames the messenger. Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do it, former president Richard Nixon did it (not to single him out), the National Rifle Association and antigun groups both do it; heck, even some Founding Fathers did it. Reporters Without Borders is tracking 363 official or unofficial journalists killed or imprisoned this year alone, so a lot of people, movements, and regimes are acting against messengers as well.

About the June murder of nine South Carolina churchgoers, amNY columnist Liza Featherstone wrote in the Observer, “The mainstream media gave us all the tragic facts about Charleston last week and promptly became a scapegoat. People felt angry and sad about what happened and didn’t know what else to do besides blame the messenger. Media criticism stood in for politics—since gun control is seen as hopeless and racism (in isolation from other problems) has no policy solution. The travesty, though, was not the news coverage but that [admitted shooter Dylann] Roof’s awful crime happened at all.”

There’s commentary—opinion—and then there’s news. In all reputable media operations, they don’t mix. A newspaper or radio station can run opinion pieces, of course, but they must be clearly labeled and separate from news. (Before cable, television stations sometimes ran opinion pieces, which held to the same rules. Then came entire channels devoted to commentary.) Some official media opinions, such as this Des Moines Register editorial, have called out Trump for cheapening political discourse. Not recognizing the line between news and opinion (or possibly not caring), Trump is now refusing press credentials to the paper’s reporters. Dan Snyder has pulled the same thing with sports reporters from the Washington Post, for obvious reasons.

You can complain about media bias; we know, for instance, that unintentional racial, gender, and other bias occurs in coverage. (Stylebooks aim to avoid language such as “a 60-year-old grandmother” when the description is irrelevant and, in DC, “across the Anacostia River” when it assumes readers are downtown/to the west.) You can complain about overcoverage, as when TV stations from Philly to Richmond focused on a burning Baltimore block hour after hour recently. You can complain that local and even national TV goes by “if it bleeds, it leads” or “if we have video, it really leads.”

But complain about the fact of coverage? No. “The mistake we make when we blame or excuse the media’s role in tragedy is in missing the fact that the media play a role rather than running the whole show,” wrote social psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford in Psychology Today. News coverage should be looked through, like glass, rather than glared at, like a picture. That way you see what you’re really upset about.

“When activists complain about the nature of media coverage, they are actually demanding that the media abandon an independent journalistic stance and champion their cause by reporting what they want reported,” William Domhoff, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote online. “This is in effect what people from the left and right constantly do: attack the media with the hope that they will bend in their direction, then blame the media if their program fails.”

The right, generally speaking, believes in a “liberal media,” in part because despite long-held and long-taught standards of neutrality in journalism, some polls have shown that more journalists personally lean left than right politically. The left, generally speaking, distrusts corporate media because companies are owned and run by very wealthy, often very conservative groups and individuals for whom advertising dollars outweigh balanced coverage.

Domhoff warned fellow radicals that “the media can magnify the message of the powerful and trivialize and marginalize the claims of the powerless. But the media don’t cause some people to be powerful and some people to be powerless.” And no side in any argument has a monopoly on confusing cause and effect.

Benjamin Franklin set forth probably the Colonies’ first explanation of freedom of the press and equal time (Pennsylvania Gazette, 1731): “Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter ….” Decades later, Thomas Jefferson added, “Information is the currency of democracy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to hear such reasoning over the din of media blamers on all sides. But the Framers’ words have lasted two to three centuries; I imagine they too will be an overmatch for the latter.

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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