Journalists, according to the cliché, write the first rough draft of history. The cliché, for better or worse, is true. Our understanding of large events is shaped by the news stories and the pop culture ephemera derived from those news stories.
Lately, letting journalists write that first draft has been mostly for the worse. In fact, one can argue a great number of media outlets have reduced rather than increased the public’s understanding of the world and our nation.
Judged by the historian’s standards they are worse than useless.
John Lukacs defined the role of the historian this way:
Thus historians and journalists do good when they uncover truths. They also do good when they debunk untruths masquerading as knowledge. Obviously, then, they fail when they present stories that are wholly false or largely misleading.
The purpose of history, too, is less a definite establishment of truth than it is the reduction of untruths.
To Daniel Boorstin, western science has advanced thanks, in part, to the men and women who make “negative discoveries.” Such discoverers add to the sum of our knowledge when they shatter a misconception posing as fact.
Journalists, either from naivety or self-interest, want us to assess their trade as though it were akin to baseball: It is OK to make a bunch of outs as long as you hit some home runs. Following Lukacs and Boorstin, we can see that this is clearly the wrong way to assess the job journalists do.
The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.
The MSM usually compounds their initial mistake with the grudging manner in which they correct errors. Knowing what we do about how opinions are formed and how difficult it is to change them honest corrections should be forthright, clear, and prominent. Instead the usual practice is to make them grudgingly and to publish them in obscure corners where they are likely to be missed.
It ain’t what a man doesn’t know as makes him a fool, but what he does know as ain’t so.
Even worse are those stealth edits that “correct” a story but only for those who come to it late. Those who saw the original false version are free to carry on with their illusions.
The very worst way journalists handle the problem is with follow-up stories that treat matters of fact as mere grist for partisan controversy. These are the infamous “conservatives pounce” sort of stories. It changes the focus from “this story was wrong” to “do you trust these strange people disputing this story.” It actively works against those who advance knowledge by dispelling untruths.
This sort of thing is also uncomfortably close to the totalitarian tactic of “turning statements of fact into questions of motive.” It increases polarization and crushes civility.