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Standing for Nothing

Oct. 30, 2012
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Frankly, no one who pays any attention at all to elections really needs a daily newspaper to tell him or her how to vote.

But when major newspapers don’t have the courage to stand for anything in times of controversy, they’re simply assuring their own irrelevance.

Wisconsin’s largest daily newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has now joined a small, but growing number of newspapers that no longer have the courage to make political endorsements.

Forget all the tortured rationalizations. The reason is painfully obvious.

Anguishing over falling circulation, the newspaper is fearful of further alienating half its readers by taking sides in two extremely close elections that, after all, may only determine the president of the United States and control of the U.S. Senate.

Those of us who remember the courage of the Milwaukee Journal in standing up against the demagoguery of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and supporting civil rights marchers in the 1960s should probably be grateful. At least, the newspaper’s current version won’t embarrass us anymore.

The Journal Sentinel has moved so far to the right its last political endorsements were to join hands with tea party extremists in supporting Republican Scott Walker for governor and then opposing the statewide effort to recall him for his relentless destruction of political rights.

There once was a time newspapers took pride in providing informed leadership in their communities. When they’re openly fearful of taking positions that could be unpopular, they’ve lost one of their basic reasons for existing.


Daily Paper Can’t Handle Right-Wing Criticism

Ending endorsements is actually a relatively minor example of the watering down of local journalism. Other far more significant changes have taken place within the news pages of the Journal Sentinel.

The motive is the same. The newspaper is frantic to ward off any criticism from right-wing political partisans.

The right-wing strategy of attacking the so-called “liberal media”—a hilarious concept since conservative business corporations own the media—has been a resounding success.

The more right-wing blowhards repeat their absurd accusations, the more the media scramble to prove they are not that filthy word.

That’s why the media missed one of the biggest stories of the 2012 election—the intentional dishonesty of the Republican campaign.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t always the case that every time a Republican presidential or vice presidential nominee spoke publicly, he would utter a long string of claims that were demonstrably false.

In the past, reporters would jump on any candidate who told even one provable lie. This year Republicans keep repeating a blinding blizzard of them.

They’ll end Obamacare on Day One, which would be illegal. They’ll pass a $5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy without raising the deficit, suspending the laws of arithmetic. They’ll destroy Medicare to save it. And on and on.

What’s remarkable is this campaign of audacious lies has fooled nearly half the country at a time when the Journal Sentinel and other major newspapers have a brand-new reporting assignment—fact checker.

Comedian Jon Stewart is one of the few commentators to raise the key question: When did journalism and fact checking separate?

The media allows Republicans to say absolutely anything, true or not. Nothing remotely resembling truth will come out until much later after fact-checkers have split acres of tortured hairs as far as the eye can see.

And fact checkers certainly don’t want to be mistaken for the liberal media. So they’re under orders to find a comparable number of falsehoods by Democrats even if they have to make them up.

Instead of promoting truth in our politics, dishonestly “balanced” fact checking removes the stigma from Republicans’ lies by creating the false impression both sides are doing it all the time.

So, let’s recap. Journalism no longer is responsible for determining the truth in its news stories. That will be in a separate section of the newspaper that goes out of its way to assure readers no political party lies any more than any other whether that’s really true or not.

The editorial page is where the newspaper will tell you what you should think about various community issues unless those issues happen to be really important like the election of a president or a U.S. senator.

The newspaper wouldn’t want to offend you by telling you what to think about issues that really matter. Which raises the obvious question: Why should anyone care what the newspaper thinks about any other issues that aren’t all that important anyway?

The problem with good journalism is that it often bothers people, particularly those who are comfortable with the status quo.

The only surefire way not to alienate readers in times of falling circulation is to put out a newspaper that stands for nothing and avoids all controversial opinions and news that might upset anyone.

But then what would be the point in reading it?


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