Jack Shafer: It’s your fault if you believe the media

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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After the shameful media coverage of the Connecticut shootings became apparent, it was predictable there would be a defense. The media will always find a way to exonerate themselves. And they get to write their own early histories.

So I wasn’t surprised when Reuters’ Jack Shafer took it upon himself to remind us, “there is no law that you have to believe anything you read in newspapers or on the Web or watch on TV.”

Fair enough.

But just imagine if politicians held themselves to these standards of accuracy and honesty. Would the press casually dismiss their errors and misstatements, by saying: “Hey, you don’t have to believe them!”

Rather than blame the media, Shafer sought to blame others, like … first responders.

“The more cops on a crime scene,” “he writes, “the more confusing things can get…” (Perhaps they should have sent fewer police officers, err, “cops”?)

If you are wondering why so outlets are going out of business — why so many reporters are getting laid off — and why the public is losing trust in journalism, this might provide a clue. (An aside: It’s ironic that Shafer is making this argument at Reuters. Earlier this year, I noticed some errors in a Reuters story on Marco Rubio. They ended up making five corrections to that one story.)

Strictly speaking, though, Shafer is technically correct. There are no laws requiring us to trust the information provided to us by the media. (Never mind the fact that they feed our minds and shape our opinions. We should not feel compelled to trust them).

But maybe that should change? After all, things do change. We pass laws to protect consumers. And we are media consumers.

There once were no laws that would give us confidence in our food. Now, you can eat a meal and be reasonably assured you won’t get sick. This is a prime example of how even a good conservative can — should! — support some regulations.

So perhaps Shafer is on to something. There “is no law” giving us confidence in the information we use to feed our minds — but maybe there should be?

Which brings me to my modest proposal. This weekend, I engaged in a bit of mischief.

I launched a satirical call for “common sense media control.” This essentially involved laying out the media’s culpability, and then aping the left’s attacks on the second amendment, and applying them to the first amendment.  It’s not hard to imagine a few common sense laws that could make things better in the future.

Here are three of my favorites:

1. Make it illegal for media outlets to glamorize or “give fame” to a killer.

2. Institute a reasonable “wait period” for reporting details or speculation (this would prevent mistakes and give us time to reflect).

3. Make it illegal for media to interview children regarding a violent crime (even with parental permission.)

These common sense solutions would, in essence, correct the problem Shafer has identified.

To my surprise, a lot of readers actually believed that I was serious — that I would actually support using government to limit free speech.

In any event, the press has a responsibility to at least try to get things right. Yes, mistakes happen. But when they do, reporters should not cavalierly dismiss gross inaccuracies by arguing it’s someone else’s fault — or that the public is under no obligation to believe them. And that is precisely what Shafer has done.

He might have been joking about a law, but when industries lose the trust of the public, something has to give.

Matt K. Lewis