During his news conference Wednesday, Saban criticized reporters for “writing stuff about people that we’re playing that doesn’t give them the proper respect, that’s not fair.”
“There are so many more good things you can write about happening around here that people would be interested in,” the football-coach-turned-media critic said. “I’d love to see some of you do a little bit of research and figure it out. It would really do my heart good.”
Clearly, Saban knows what season it is. No, not football season; it’s the silly season. That’s what we call the time when a national election nears and the stakes grow high. Voices are raised. Threats are issued. Friendships are severed. One of the first casualties is journalism.
Look at it this way. Politicians are in the business of perception-altering. They excel at painting a happy scene for their cause and a foreboding one for the other guy’s. An independent journalist pointing out the inconvenient facts and unreality of both views gets in the way.
So, the usual tactic is for candidates and their allies to suggest reporters are playing favorites. If facts and evidence are obstacles to getting elected, campaigns do what it takes to knock them down.
Mitt Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse recently summed up this mindset, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
In sports, it’s called “working the refs.” A coach pleads with the referee that his side isn’t getting a fair shot in hopes that he’ll see a different outcome the next time there’s a close call.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a cry for pity for journalists, nor is it a wish that politicians will decide on their own to change their behavior.
Instead, it’s an acknowledgement. Journalists have typically done a poor job explaining what they do and why they do it. They’ve perhaps naively not recognized that well-financed and well-organized forces are dedicated to portraying reporters as biased and unfair. And the brush is often applied about that thickly: A reporter for a national network cuts corners and news-gathering outlets large and small are portrayed as equally unethical. Nonsense.
Being human, reporters are just as susceptible to flaws as anyone, but it’s ridiculous to assume that one biased reporter smears an entire profession.
So, what’s the case for journalism?
We should start with the nation’s founders, who understood that a free and vigorous press was essential for a healthy democracy. As messy as it can be at times, journalism is the best defense against government that exceeds its authority and wastes your money. The famed quote from 20th-century journalist I.F. Stone still holds, “All governments lie.”
What was true 200 years ago still applies today, more so even. Modern candidates and campaigns have countless reality-bending tools at their disposal. Both sides duel each other with competing sets of “facts.”
Hard-charging reporters who can cut through the fog of politics are vital. Obscuring or ignoring crying problems is no way to run a country. Independent reporting on the issues of the day is the best way to pursue smart fixes.
What the public does with honest information is up to them. Some voters will rely on outlets that comfortably confirm their audience’s pre-conceived notions of the way things work; nary conflicting information is provided. Others will consume a variety of perspectives in hopes of coming to reasonably sound conclusions. Even more will likely shrug that no one can be trusted and tune out of the entire political process.
The reporter’s job remains the same. Check the claims of politicians and test them against the evidence at hand. Be accurate. Be fair. Offer context.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.