More than 50 years ago, when “The Time of Your Life,” was revived on Broadway, with Henry Fonda playing the lead, LIFE magazine asked the playwright, William Saroyan, to review his award-winning play.
Instead of coming East from his home in San Francisco, Saroyan “reviewed” the play as he imagined it would be performed. LIFE ran the review, which (like G. B. Shaw’s Prefaces) reflected Saroyan’s philosophy of life as well as re-telling the story of the play.
On April 27, there was a panel discussion, “Fair and Balanced?” presented jointly by the SPJ and the Philadelphia Public Relations Association. Since virtually everything that was said was inaudible (when will panelists learn to speak to the microphones and not turn their heads to speak to each other?), I am going to take the Saroyan approach to reviewing the discussions.
However, the panelists and moderator will be unnamed, but their titles will suffice. The moderator is editor of a magazine; the panelists are the managing editor of a local newspaper, the CEO of a public-relations firm, a partner in a law firm, and a news director of a television station.
The title of the panel discussion refers to the trend to opinion in the news rather than giving the facts and enabling the reader or listener or the viewer to make up his mind. The reasons for the trend include the profusion of electronic toys that enable everyone to be his own expert and tell everyone else that he is, indeed, an expert and is entitled to express his opinion. This is called “civilian journalism,” or something equally stupid and inane.
Another problem is the apparent need for “instant” news–”I want to know what happened five seconds ago, not thirty seconds ago.” Thus, the print media (especially) is fashioning a rod with which to beat its own back by supplying “online” news, therefore reducing the number of people who would wait till the newspaper comes out. Often, I wonder how I survived not knowing about the bombing of Pearl Harbor until the day after it happened, or the successful invasion of Normandy until the second day?
A third reason is that apparently, somewhere down the line, people have become more stupid and incapable of making their own decisions and forming their own opinions, so the news must be “interpreted” for them. This is to compete with all the self-declared “experts” who have all the electronic toys and, therefore, can express their views on all subjects, whether or not they have all the facts (or, indeed, any facts!).
So, how is all of this related to the question of “Fair and Balanced”? In the old days, we who studied journalism (now, of course, it has been elevated to “communications”) at university (I was fortunate to have been taught by ex-newsmen, and not by academics whose acquaintance with newsrooms is watching “All The President’s Men”) were taught that the journalist must gather the who-what-when-where-why-how of any event or “story” before the story could be written, and the (dare I say, “intelligent”?) reader/listener/viewer had enough information to get on with his life.
This training is what the public-relations practitioner must also need to do his job well when he provides that information to the news media or whomever is the target. A topic for future discussion might be how an opinion-filled “press release” is interpreted by an opinion-forming journalist. But, I digress.
So, is journalism today “Fair and Balanced”? Newspapers are losing circulation because they apparently have rejected the old idea of fair and balanced. Television news programs apparently are losing audience because they have rejected the idea of fair and balance. So, where does the public get its “news.” When one listens to all the ill-informed comments that are made around the lunch and dinner tables, at parties, in bars, it would appear that “news” is the least thing on peoples’ minds. It is opinion, and “mine is as good as yours.”
It is apparent that the news media–or most of it, to be more accurate–has abdicated its role in our society It has willingly helped the hangman place the noose around its neck. Those with all the electronic toys are the masters now.
And, where does that leave the public-relations practitioner? Use the toys to get your message (don’t bother with facts, it’s opinion that counts) out to your target audience; the “traditional” media is probably useless. But, be prepared when some of that target audience target your client or your employer. How will the practitioner cry “foul” when the concept of “fair” has been killed and buried? Another topic for discussion?
And, where does that leave the journalist? Don’t bother with the old 5-Ws-and-H. Just go to a few like-minded people and get their views and repeat them. No one out there, apparently, expects “fair” and “balanced” any longer.