What is journalism’s fundamental purpose?

Despite the nonsensical accusations that they’re “fake news,” some of the leading members of the mainstream print media in the U.S. haven’t helped to distinguish themselves recently.

Beyond the often-irresponsible “narrative” journalism they pursued ahead of the 2016 presidential election, outlets like The New York Times and the Boston Globe have stumbled badly under the guise of trying to represent a wider range of viewpoints on their pages. Rather than inviting opinions from people of color, minority religions, poor rural citizens, immigrants, working scientists and others, though, what did they do?

In The New York Times’ case, it hired a white male conservative climate-change denier and then criticized legitimate critics of that decision for being unwilling to listen to “diverse” opinions.

In the Boston Globe’s case, it published dubiously “counter-intuitive” think pieces asking whether Ivanka Trump is “the new feminist icon” and whether white-power groups can “build lasting alliances.”

What are newspapers thinking when they publish pieces like this? Which audiences are they seeking to engage? These are legitimate questions to ask in the wake of missteps like the ones above. But the bigger, more important question, is, “What is journalism’s purpose?”

What, after all, does a newspaper or media outlet exist for? Isn’t it, logically, to inform the general citizenry of news that affects its welfare? And, if so, shouldn’t that be with the implicit aim of defending and improving, rather than worsening, the general citizenry’s welfare?

How, then, does holding up Ivanka Trump as a “feminist icon” improve the welfare of the general female population in the U.S.? Unless there’s an easy method by which all of us could be retroactively born to a wealthy, unscrupulous and pathologically narcissistic serial liar and misogynist, I don’t see a good argument for such a piece.

And how does adding another climate change-dismissing white male conservative’s voice benefit the millions of ordinary Americans who live in regions likely to be hit hardest by worsening droughts, storms and other climate impacts? The obvious answer is, “Not at all.”

A better standard might be the one offered by the Chicago Evening Post’s Finley Peter Dunne in 1893: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (Although the original quote, which Dunne put in the mouth of a fictional bartender named Mr. Dooley, put it this way: “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”)

There’s also this standard, described by George Mason in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights that became the model for the U.S. Bill of Rights: “The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”

Finally, there’s Thomas Jefferson’s support for a well-educated citizenry to keep government in check. While what’s possibly his most famous quote about the topic (“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”) is actually spurious, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Jefferson did advocate strongly for general education and knowledge as a defense against tyranny:

“[E]xperience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large…,” Jefferson wrote, adding that educated people should be “able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.”

This, then, is the challenge we should be issuing to today’s media outlets: Don’t bend over backward to mollify, flatter or reassure those who already have the most control of power and purse-strings… or to superficially demonstrate your “independent streak” by writing counter-intuitive articles that embolden beliefs and attitudes harmful to the general public. Do what’s required to “illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large… without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.”

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