On Wednesday, Sept. 18, nationally known Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Lowell Bergman came to the Raven Theater in Healdsburg for an evening of conversation about the state of journalism today. The event was sponsored by Northern California Public Media, Camellia Inn, and Sonoma West Publishers, which brings us this newspaper. Steve Mencher, news director at KRCB, and Sonoma West Publisher Rollie Atkinson joined Bergman at the table on the stage. Their discussion, one has to say, was less than hopeful. Still, the good-sized audience appeared to find it terrifically interesting, and everyone I talked to said they were glad they were there.
Bergman started off by giving us a peek under his blue dress shirt to see his black T shirt with “Enemy of the People” written across it. The audience applauded, and the discussion began with him telling us that The New York Times, having prevailed over recent financial difficulties, is now making more money than ever. So, what could very well be the best newspaper in the country, if not the world, is doing well these days. That, surely, is a good sign.
But then Atkinson pointed out that, since 2008, 1,600 newspapers have folded in this country, including 16 in California in the last two years. Close to 200 county seats no longer have an independent press to inform citizens about what is going on in halls of local government. Furthermore, Rollie told us, when we search for information on Google, what we get is increasingly what Google wants us to get. He said the same is true of other big internet companies.
This led to Bergman reminding us that, unlike newspapers and radio and television companies, internet corporations are exempt from any responsibility for the accuracy of the information they transmit. They can’t be sued for damages that might result from what they send all over the world. So anything can be said about anyone or anything, and the only recourse is to try to find and sue the one who posted the false story. Bergman pointed out that technology can now offer us videos of people actually saying things they never said at all.
The less than hopeful part of all this is that more and more people are getting more and more of the information they live by from spurious sources. There seems to be a willingness, especially among younger generations, to accept as true whatever they get from whatever electronic device is at hand. This being so, what will happen to responsible journalism? Several in the audience expressed fear that well-sourced news will get lumped in with the mish mash of fantastically false information flying around the planet.
In part, Bergman blamed this growing openness to bogus information on our president’s constant labeling responsible journalism as “fake news.” He also suggested that the widespread inability to distinguish between responsible reporting and phony assertion can be ascribed to the failure of American public education to teach critical thinking. It seemed to me he had a point, but it did not sit well with my schoolteacher wife who was on the verge of taking umbrage in public. Thankfully, that moment quickly passed.
My sense of the matter is that the inner life of too many of us has not been molded by the philosophical and even religious principles that used to help us know what is true, good, and helpful and what isn’t.
It seems to me too many of us are able to accept outrageously hurtful pronouncements and policies as normal everyday reality. Babies in cages! Folks, this, as with so much today, is far beyond the pale. If, through sound, effective reporting, this doesn’t become obvious to the overwhelming majority of us, I don’t know what can be done.
I wish the discussion could have led to something a little more hopeful.
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.