May 31, 2004

Truth in journalism

By: Rich Trzupek

Most people will sooner trust the Psychic Friends Network than they will your average reporter. It’s no wonder, since the mainstream media’s take on the world often bears as little resemblance to the truth as “reality TV” does to the life of anyone born outside of the planet Zoltron.

Modern journalistic priorities were defined most succinctly by long-time 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt. Asked to name his heroes, Hewitt didn’t choose pioneering broadcast journalists like Ed Murrow or Bill Shirer. He drew his inspiration from moguls like Louis Mayer and Daryl Zanuck.

What’s wrong with that picture? Just that Mayer and Zanuck produced movies, not newspapers. They told stories that could be heart-wrenching, thought-provoking and nerve-wracking. They told them through one of the most powerful mediums available. There are more than a few entertaining stories in their portfolios, but they are fantasy.

So it’s curious, if not frightening, that the landmark producer of what is arguably America’s most prestigious TV newsmagazine found his inspiration in modern day fairy tales. It shouldn’t be surprising though.

60 Minutes, like the majority of the mainstream media, is primarily interested in wrenching eye-popping emotion that will freeze your finger on the remote. They might not exactly lie, but they do something far more dangerous: they weigh the “attractive” portions of the story far more heavily than the mundane parts. It’s an approach that leaves the news consumer with a simple, sinister choice: swallow the spin or be labeled a heartless wretch.

Professionals in all walks of life complain about that kind of coverage. Talk to a pilot and he’ll tell you that the media invariably gets aviation stories wrong. Doctors are disgusted by health care coverage. Professionals in the sane half of the environmental field hoot with laughter at the way the tree-hugging extremists get all the ink, while rational scientists are dismissed with half a quote in paragraph 12.

The media operates within certain thematic confines. The solitary individual fighting for a “popular” cause is always right. Business, it goes without saying, is always wrong; the bigger, the wronger. Advocates for religious causes are always fanatics, unless the religion happens to be environmentalism or secularism. In order to ensure equality, we must divide people into distinct groups and treat each one much differently. The list goes on and on.

In the midst of such an environment, it’s heartening to know that there are people and organizations who covet something more. The Phillips Foundation is one of publisher and philanthropist Tom Phillips’ many enterprises. The brainchild of Phillips and nationally syndicated columnist and television personality Robert Novak, the foundation encourages and funds aspiring journalists who would like to raise their profession to a higher standard.

With names like Phillips, Novak and American Spectator publisher Alfred Regnery involved, one might think that the Phillips Foundation caters only to the Right. Not so. Chatting with other applicants for a Phillips Fellowship, and reviewing past winners, one soon learns that journalists of many different viewpoints are considered. The litmus test isn’t about party affiliation, it’s about journalistic integrity.

That means that the work funded by Phillips should be defined as “conservative” in the real (not popularly applied) sense, for conservatism is about truth. Yet a true conservative can also recognize the value of liberalism, as it used to be defined anyway.

The liberalism of the past was about ideals, before it became propaganda in blind support of prurient politics.

Many of us out here on the Right don’t fear ideals. We’ve got our own, believe it or not, and we admire those of many others, while we also esteem traditions like principle, truth, a free society and small government.

In the same vein, the Phillips Foundation aims to jump start the careers of young writers dedicated to the truth, not to a cause. This correspondent was fortunate enough to be selected as one of this year’s Phillips Foundation Fellows, despite the fact that I’m several hundred grey hairs past young.

It’s all pretty humbling for a south side boy, who knows much more about steel mills and neighborhood bars than he does about demographic trends and policy initiatives.

More importantly, the very existence of such organizations tells us something about the state of the media today. There’s an insatiable, hunger for truth among us and groups like the Phillips Foundation are proof of that.

The point is that there are plenty of opportunities out there for people who think just a little differently and want just a little more. With a little work, perhaps the day will come when journalists will climb up from the bottom of the list of the least trusted.

Then we can go to work on personal injury lawyers.

Rich Trzupek is a recepient of the 2004 Phillips Foundation Fellowship and is currently working on a project examining the effect of environmental regulations on small to mid-sized businesses.