When the “Big 3” TV networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—literally ruled the airwaves, Americans were used to getting their news from newspapers and News Hours.
I’m too young to remember the legendary honesty and integrity of Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s and early 1960s, whose reports helped lead to the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Red Scare tactics. But I do remember watching and hearing the calm deep voice and face of mustachioed Walter Cronkite, one of the most trusted newscasters in television journalism, as he anchored the CBS Newshour. Who can forget his factual and emotional live coverage of the events surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination? I never will.
Meanwhile, public radio stations offered the “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” that also began to air on PBS television stations nationwide in 1975. It followed a two-host format, with Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer as co-anchors. It also had an excellent reputation for unbiased and in-depth reporting, had frequent guests and commentators, and covered both domestic and international issues and events.
On December 4, 2009, when introducing the new PBS NewsHour format, Jim Lehrer read out a list of core principles for what he referred to as “MacNeil/Lehrer journalism:”
- Do nothing I cannot defend.
- Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
- Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
- Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
- Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
- Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
- Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
- Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions.
- No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
- And finally, I am not in the entertainment business.
These lofty, truthful, equitable and fairness-centered principles of journalism seem a far cry from what many call biased news or even “fake news” today. Now, certain announcers, writers, pundits and news analysts air views that are really nothing more than extreme liberal or conservative opinions—and they are not afraid to show it. Indeed, much of what Lehrer warned against—treating the news as opinion or entertainment—has become just that, and truth has been sacrificed in the telling. The problem? No disclaimers reveal or indicate the pronounced slant of such “news,” which many viewers believe as factual rather than simply social or political opinion or even satire.
From a Baha’i perspective, this rise in bias and the consequent loss of truth in media represents a severe loss for humanity as a whole. The Baha’i teachings call for justice and equity in journalism:
The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 39-40.
To be sure, the moral downfall of the press is commensurate with humanity’s moral decline generally. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, described “the deterioration in the standard of literature and of the press …” as one of the evidences of moral decadence “invading both the East and the West, permeating every stratum of society, and instilling their poison in its members of both sexes, young and old alike …” – The Promised Day Is Come, pp. 114-115.
Each human being has the responsibility to tell the truth and independently investigate the truth, according to the Baha’i teachings—but that independent investigation is hampered when our media and news sources don’t try or even purport to hew to a standard of objective, unbiased truth themselves.
How can we fix that serious social problem? We’ll examine that important question in the second essay in this three-part series.