INDIANAPOLIS  – It will surprise no semi-sentient being that the state of our politics is, well, unwell.  

Abroad, the seven-decade run of Pax Americana is ending with tensions between global rivals over territory, trade and fundamental governing philosophies dangerously rising. Nationally, the conversation – such as it is at 140 characters – can be summed up as, “You don’t think like me, so you suck, etc., etc.,” and a culture of seemingly helpless victimhood pervades. Closer to home, elected state officials can’t run a legislative session to successful conclusion without getting in their own way and at least one aspirant to higher office is worried about political bias from debate sponsors and moderators to the point of self-exclusion. 

In the immortal words of Oliver Hardy, once he began speaking words on film, “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us in.” Only the “you” is actually “we” (usually so in the Laurel & Hardy franchise) and WE need to do something about it before the bones of our body politic fracture further.  

Many trends converged to bring our politics to this point, but as a writer who simply must insist that words have meaning, one clearly is the hyperventilating use of hyperbole in our political discourse. Another is the rise of social media which, when it comes to politics, is downright anti-social. Finally, another trend is the increasing bias in political journalism, which in the Trump Era seems to have simultaneously accelerated and degraded to the point of farce. 

Take for example the current controversy over the following statement, which is worth reprinting and contemplating at length with minimal, contextual changes to the original (indicated here by parentheses):

“Hi, (we’re journalists). Our greatest responsibility is to serve our (local) community. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that we produce. But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country. 

“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories – stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first. 

“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’... This is extremely dangerous to a democracy. It’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ 

“Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever. 
But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair, please reach out to us by going to (our website) and clicking on (local news source link). 

“We value your comments. We will respond back to you. We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual. We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day. Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback.”

Now ask yourself, what is wrong with this statement? In effect, it is saying that good journalism should be unbiased and fact-based, determined to get at the objective truth of any given matter. And when journalism falls short of such ideals, journalists need to be held accountable and here’s a tool to do so. Further, it acknowledges what is plain to anyone who follows news and politics: Bias is omnipresent in today’s political journalism and often leads to misreporting of facts (several corrections having been issued by national news outlets just this year).

Again, what is wrong with this statement and the ideals it expresses? Sounds pretty much like the whole point of good journalism, right?  

Well, it was issued by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of local news stations in the country, and required to be aired on each of their stations in a common, “must run” editorial practice. However, Sinclair just happens to have conservative and pro-Trump (not the same) political leanings and the statement was immediately labeled by critics as propaganda. Some oblivious to irony even called it “Orwellian.” 

By “critics” I mean of course any left-of-center media outlet whose own biases conflict with those of Sinclair and by “propaganda” I mean anything you disagree with politically from any source, which is the problem and point of this exercise.  

The definition of the word propaganda is “information, ideas or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.” (Poetically, it has its origins in the 17th Century Roman Catholic Church where it referred to a group of cardinals charged by Pope Gregory XV to train and send priests abroad for the literal propagation of the faith.)

Reconsider the Sinclair statement. Would it qualify as propaganda if, say, CNN had issued it and delivered it directly to TV screens in numerous airports and homes across the country?  

Again, the answer probably depends on your political point of view, i.e. bias, which is again the point. In our modern discourse, “propaganda” has become a lazy, catch-all word misused to mean anything politically disagreeable and therein lies the true, Orwellian danger. 

For there is actual propaganda afoot in American politics. That is the crux of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And, it is infecting journalism more and more across the board, including Sinclair some of whose personnel are reportedly alumni of Russia Today (RT), the English-language arm of Russian state-sponsored television.  

I’ll go out on a limb (having addressed the issue in a recent column) and say that propaganda was the entire point of CNN’s national townhall-style meeting on gun violence after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. That spectacle was no exercise in informative journalism or even-handed debate on guns in America; it was a tightly controlled exercise in pro-gun control messaging sponsored by one of the biggest brands in cable television news. The bias was palpable, it furthered a point of view to the detriment of opponents to that view and, therefore, perfectly fits the dictionary definition of propaganda. 

And, to what end? What was the result? The CNN chorus responded, the Fox News tribe rebelled, everyone went back to their corners. Polarization 1, Progress 0. An undesirable outcome. Same with the Sinclair statement and other media outlets’ coverage of it. 

As Americans, we should expect political factions to act in such a manner and to engage in propaganda, whether based upon objective facts or even rumor and falsehood. It is as it has ever been. However, we should demand better from journalists and news organizations. 

Across all media, journalism needs to heal itself. It is too important an institution to our faltering democracy.  

Carter is president of ContentByCarter