Is Sean Hannity a journalist?
What about Rachel Maddow?
In the United States, there are no clear lines to define who is a working journalist. There are no licensing bureaus, no official credentials that you can earn, no test you must pass. Because the First Amendment guarantees a free press and freedom of speech, anyone can declare herself a journalist.
That leaves all of us unclear about who qualifies.
Hannity himself is apparently confused.
In 2016, when questioned by the New York Times about his promotion of presidential candidate Donald Trump, Hannity replied, “I never claimed to be a journalist.”
The next year, also in an interview with the Times, he claimed he was a journalist.
And so far this year, he has claimed he is, but that he wasn’t ethically required to disclose that he was a client of Trump’s lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen when he used his show to defend Cohen.
In many ways, Hannity’s hyper-partisan journalism – and Maddow’s on competing MSNBC – are throwbacks to the 1800s and early 1900s.
Through much of U.S. history, newspaper editors and publishers were obviously partisan. They covered news in ways that made their candidates and parties look good, and made their opponents look bad.
A combination of commercial and political pressures led to changes in how most newspapers covered political news in the 20th century. By about 1950, most newspapers worked to provide fair coverage of both political parties.
Their counterparts in TV and radio were doing the same, in part because of the same pressure from readers and businesses that wanted unbiased coverage and in part because of regulation from the Federal Communications Commission.
The Fairness Doctrine, created in 1949, was intended to ensure political fairness in news outlets that used public airwaves. But the regulation was challenged repeatedly in court and slowly started fading away in the 1980s. It was eliminated in 2011.
Today, many Americans want their news handed to them by people who think like them – or at least pretend to think like them. The rise of the internet and cable TV facilitated this preference.
There is nothing inherently evil or wrong with choosing media on the basis of political alignment. But in making that choice, Americans should recognize that what they think is true and fair is influenced greatly by their own political views.
It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s found on the right and the left.
To oversimplify, the term describes our tendency to believe what we want to be true, and to discredit information that challenges our views. It’s only one reason that an idea floated recently for a credibility rating system for news is unfeasible.
Upset by coverage of his Tesla car company, Elon Musk used Twitter to suggest that the public rate the credibility of individual reporters and their news outlets through a new web service.
Devin Coldewey wrote for the website TechCrunch that such a system has been tried and has failed. He pointed to Facebook, which has attempted to crowdsource whether stories are fake or real. What Facebook found is that people report as “fake” any story with which they disagree, Coldewey wrote.
There are also significant technical issues to overcome, as Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have discovered as they attempt to distinguish between real people and bots, which are computer programs designed to simulate a real person on websites.
Russia uses them a lot to mess with our social media platforms and our minds. Bots are easily created, pervasive and tend to distort political discussion and polls that take place online.
The discussion over news credibility is a good one. So are new ideas for giving the public ways to gauge the reliability of news outlets.
I doubt there is any perfect system, or even one that most Americans would agree was reasonably designed and operated.
But that we continue to have the discussion about what is good journalism and what makes a good journalist means not all hope is lost. It means a lot of us still care about what’s true, what’s a lie and what’s propaganda dressed up as news.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.