I admire David Robertson as a Christian commentator, but I think he is off the point in his recent article “Newspapers, bias and truth” in which he criticises the Sydney Morning Herald for suggesting that right-wing media in the United States shared blame for the January 6 riot at the Capitol.
He has not a word of censure for the right-wing media, who undoubtedly stoked the fires with incessant repetition of President Trump’s bogus and disproven claims that he won in a landslide, yet dismisses the SMH’s honest admission that sometimes criticism of the mainstream media is justified. This is not an admission you will ever find about themselves on Sky after Dark in Australia or Fox News in the US.
C.S. Lewis once observed that political sermons teach the congregation nothing except what newspapers are taken in the vicarage, and I suspect David’s comments here reflect his own political allegiance.
Why does this matter? After all, we all have political allegiances and, for believers, it is part of our Christian discernment. It matters because there is a sustained campaign to discredit mainstream media from both left and right, which is helping diminish levels of trust in society and building division and discord as people turn instead to echo chambers where they simply hear their own views shouted back at them.
I have been a journalist working in mainstream media for 45 years. I well know the weaknesses, failures, laziness, ignorance, apathy and agendas sometimes to be found there. Journalists are heir to all the human failings that afflict the rest of us.
But in 45 years I have never been instructed to follow an agenda, to write against my conscience, to dress up the facts, but instead to be careful, accurate and fair. Have I always managed that? Certainly not, but any failures were not through attempts to slant the news.
Complete objectivity is impossible, and often what one leaves out is as important as what one includes, adding to the complexity of the journalistic task. My point is that, by and large, the mainstream media are aware of its responsibilities and hopes to honour them, something not necessarily true of the myriad social media and other outlets that are responsible to no one.
The SMH says, as David quotes: “There is a fundamental difference, the Herald believes, between journalism that at least tries to find the truth, however partially, and journalism that is built around inventing it. There is also a line, perhaps a fine one, between engaged journalism that fights for causes and complicity journalism that collaborates with the likes of Donald Trump.” I say, that difference exists and is essential.
Mainstream media does seem to have become more polarised. David says the SMH has lurched to the left; on left-wing sites I have visited, most seem to think that under new ownership chaired by former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello it has swung to the right. I agree that there are fewer articles presenting opposing points of view, and that this is a problem.
My solution is to read as widely as possible on both left and right. I subscribe to The Age, the Herald Sun, the Australian, the New York Times, the Spectator, the New Yorker, and several news and opinion daily emails. Not everyone may have as much time to read as I do, but we can all try to diversify the opinions we examine.