Journalists covering politics have been able to write what they want anytime they want about anyone they want without serious repercussions for a very long time.
It has been like shooting fish in a barrel. But that has changed with the advent of social media. Now the fish are shooting back.
Some in Kentucky’s journalism ranks are crying foul, or at least crying. But the shifting paradigm could do much to strengthen the news industry.
An op-ed in one newspaper the other day went so far as to suggest that politicians who criticize journalists are anti-American, because, the writer said, reporters play such an important role in our democracy. That comment was pointed toward Kentucky's top politician, Gov. Matt Bevin, who, through an enormous following on social media, has proven himself quite capable of lobbing salvoes back at journalists who attack him.
A single video of Bevin berating Kentucky’s Capitol press corps for producing what he called "fake news" received more than 1 million views on social media.
“Don’t get outraged when I go around you and talk directly to people, because, the reality is, I’m going to keep doing it because people deserve the truth,” Bevin told those reporters in a thorough dressing down captured on video by one of his staffers.
At the time Kentucky Today wrote about Bevin's video, it had already been shared 19,000 times, received more than 15,000 likes, and had amassed about 2,400 comments on its way to the million views. Think about that. Bevin, in a matter of a few hours, was able to reach nearly a quarter of Kentucky’s population.
The takeaway for journalists: We'd better have our facts straight when we post stories.
Conservative politicians in Kentucky have complained about lopsided news coverage for generations, but, until now, there was nothing they could do about it. Social media has evened the playing field so that politicians can strike back.
America needs journalists who will present the unvarnished truth. And if they are unwilling to do that, they should be held accountable.
Mark Twain once wrote with a great deal of hyperbole about the day he spent as a reporter in a Tennessee newspaper office. By the day’s end, he explained to his editor why he was resigning:
“A gentleman shoots at you through the window and cripples me; a bombshell comes down the stovepipe for your gratification and sends the stove door down my throat; a friend drops in to swap compliments with you, and freckles me with bullet holes till my skin won't hold my principles; you go to dinner, and Jones comes with his cowhide, Gillespie throws me out of the window, Thompson tears all my clothes off, and an entire stranger takes my scalp with the easy freedom of an old acquaintance; and in less than five minutes all the blackguards in the country arrive in their war paint and proceed to scare the rest of me to death with their tomahawks. Take it altogether, I never had such a spirited time in all my life as I have had today.”
The scenes Twain described were satire and should remain so. Journalists should never be physically accosted in any way. They should, however, be accountable for their words, and social media helps to provide that accountability.
This is not anti-American. It’s healthy. Instead of crying woe is me, newsmen and women should embrace this new day in American journalism and the accountability that comes with it.