“It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grams a week. And only yesterday (…) it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grams a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it. …” — George Orwell, “1984”
It’s long been understood by tinpot dictators, socialists and pretty much everybody that if you control information, you control society.
Propaganda was a key ingredient in Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. He even had a director that made sure the precise message was delivered.
I’m not at this point equating this country to pre-World War II Germany, nor am I calling anyone fascists.
I am, however, expressing my dismay at the state of the news media, especially at the national level. There are many times, and it’s growing in frequency, that I lament my chosen profession has become a parody of itself, choosing to embrace access instead of objectivity and celebrity instead of credibility.
But I led off with the Orwell quote because something alarming came across my radar last week, and it frankly chilled me. I wouldn’t even deny being gobsmacked.
According to numerous outlets, as well as the paper itself, the Boston Globe is starting what it calls the Fresh Start Initiative. It will allow people to petition the paper to have stories published by the newspaper and placed on the website edited to remove names, add updated information or have it removed from Google searches.
The reasoning is to allow people to craft a future without the baggage of the past interfering.
Other outlets, such as the Washington Post and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, are doing the very same things.
Now let’s be clear here. It’s not like the newspapers are changing the events — yet. What’s happening is supposedly designed to help people move on without the baggage of a past arrest. Yet that’s not what happened in the case of Vice President Kamala Harris.
The Post heavily edited a story in which Harris made a quote — which was not incorrect or wrongly reported — that portrayed the then-candidate for president in a bad light. The Post waved its magic wand and changed the story.
It wasn’t until it was noticed and written about in Reason Magazine that the Post put the original story back up. However, the edited version remained, and the reader was given a choice of which way to go.
As with the stories and posts about arrests, what Harris did was news, and was reported correctly. That is not up for dispute. But much as Winston Smith was changing headlines to make a news piece about chocolate rations positive, so is this trend.
In the cases of arrests, I fully believe that finishing the story is right, and if a suspect is exonerated, it should be written about. That’s just good, responsible journalism, and that’s following the story to its conclusion.
But changing the original should never be done, for one simple reason — it’s still the truth.
This profession, or trade if you will, at its core is about the truth. We present the information, and it’s up to the reader to decide what to think about it. Sure, we have opinion pages (like where this column is), but that is clearly marked and its clearly understood that a column is the opinion of the writer.
When that creeps into a story, or when stories and events in those stories are erased or changed based on nothing more than it hurts someone’s feelings, that’s really not how journalism works.
Most parents will agree that children are taught that actions have consequences. If the action is egregious enough, it’s a distinct possibility it will end up in a news report, and that is assuredly a consequence.
But whitewashing a truth is no benefit. And it’s not journalism.