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Feehery: The Fourth Estate needs to heal thyself

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote from Paris that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. 

That was back in the old days, when the 4th Estate stood up for the people and not for the government. 

Finley Peter Dunn wrote that his job as a journalist was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

These days, the media seems to be more interested in supporting government narratives than it does in exposing government corruption. 

It perhaps is no surprise that the approval ratings of both government officials and journalist rank at the bottom as the least trusted “society leaders”, according to an annual trust meter put out by Edelman.  Interestingly, the country where the media scores the lowest is in Communist China. Our 4th Estate seems to be headed in the same direction, seen as a shill for the corporate and governing elite instead of an independent voice for the people. 

According to Gallup, last year the American people’s trust in the media to fully, accurately and fairly report the news fell another four points to an embarrassing 36 percent, the second lowest ever.

And according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford “few individual news organizations have clear incentives for investing in building trust with indifferent, skeptical, or outright hostile parts of the public.” They would rather preach to the choir than fairly report the news because it is better for business.

As a former press secretary and a voracious consumer of all news, here are my suggestions on how the 4th Estate can heal itself.

  • Hire fewer reporters from Harvard and more reporters from Illinois State: The greatest journalists of the past tended to be from the Midwest or at least have Midwest values. The top newspapers prefer to hire those who are already on the top of the economic heep, recruiting aggressively from the top Ivy league schools. These upper crust reporters reflect the values and the prejudices of the upper crust. And you can see it in their reporting. They look at folks in middle America as some sort of strange sociological sect that they have only heard of from their textbooks at Yale. 
  • Have editors edit copy, not drive narratives: Too many editors these days are put in place not to expunge needless words but make certain that the stories reflect the woke sensibility of the ruling elite. You can see it in every story about COVID-19 or politics, where words are inserted to make the readers understand that whatever the Republicans or anti-lockdowners are saying is either unfounded, unproven or a lie. Editorializing in your news copy is wrong and drives your readers crazy. Stop doing it.
  • Stop with the “on background quotes”: When I was a press secretary, I used to go on background all the time. It was wrong of me to do it and it was wrong from my reporter friends to accept it. If somebody doesn’t have the courage to on the record, a reporter shouldn’t include the quote in the story. It is lazy reporting and it drives false narratives. 
  • Stop giving your content away for free and stop letting Big Tech companies profit off of your reporters: I understand that you want to get the biggest audience possible, but if you don’t get paid by your customers, you will be forced to dumb down your content. Click-bait is destroying journalism. Big social media companies must be forced to pay you for your content.
  • Don’t let your reporters become captive to their sources:  A good reporter can report from anywhere and report on anything. Bad reporters in the pursuit of easy stories become beholden to the industries or more importantly, government agencies that they cover.  This is how major newspapers get us into endless wars or in support of endless lockdowns. 
  • Let both sides have their say: The American people are smart enough to see who is right and who is not. Suppressing free speech never works. The news media should stop trying to game the system to make their ideological side win.  

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at He served as spokesman to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).

Tags Dennis Hastert Journalism Mass media Media bias

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