Recently, I read a newspaper story of a boat on fire and its owner’s rescue by a fellow mariner. The account appeared on the online version of our local paper. It confirmed my decision to stop getting a physical copy of the same paper.
You see, certain details about the event were accurately reported. It is true that there was an incident on a local lake involving two boats; one which was on fire and the other which served as a rescue vessel. But what became clear from the reader response to the article was that the news story mistakenly reported Boater A jumping overboard to escape the flames and being fished out of the water by boater B. A cable news channel seemed to have gotten the story even more confused when it portrayed the captain of the rescue boat boarding the burning vessel to save his neighbor.
The real story was dramatic enough as the captain of the burning boat crossed from his bow to the bow of the second boat only moments before fire engulfed his vessel. And I can’t think of any real harm to the universe done by the careless and erroneous reporting.
Which is why it serves as such a valuable lesson. This story involved no confusion as on a battlefield or disaster scene, generated no rush to scoop another newspaper (the city only has one), and had no element which could rouse the reporter’s personal political biases. Even so, the reporter messed up the story and the newspaper ran an error filled article.
Repressive regimes do their best to ensure that only the official version of the news gets reported. When Germany invaded other countries, it confiscated radios so that the citizens wouldn’t have any outside sources of news. Citizens of the old Soviet Union knew they needed to read between the lines of Pravda newspaper. Taking stories at face value was like knowingly accepting counterfeit money. Today, regimes like Iran and China attempt to control Internet access.
Thanks to the constitution’s first amendment, America’s press cannot be censored by Congress or forced to print anything. But that only allows a free press to function, it doesn’t guarantee one. Freedom of speech does not impose the obligation on any individual or any news service to report the truth accurately. The press has the choice to highlight a story or underplay it. When Congress or the president’s approval rating is front page news under one administration and not reported or delegated to a monthly back page report under another administration or when unpopular legislation moving through Congress is ignored we have a free but a useless press. When stories destroying someone’s character are reported in large print and the correction or retraction appears in an inconspicuous box, we have a free but harmful press.
The New York Times has proudly proclaimed for decades, “All the news that’s fit to print.” A more accurate rendition for today’s news gatherers might be “All the news we choose, printed whether it is accurate or not.”