The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, among other things, freedom of the press. It was designed to prevent the government from controlling the flow of information to the American people. But if we are to be faithful to the spirit of the First Amendment, in this age of the internet and social media, shouldn't the principle also include the protection of Americans from being manipulated by intentionally misleading and mendacious information from all directions?
If they hope to earn and maintain the trust of the populace, the media should not become the agent of special interests that wish to spread ignorance or falsehoods. Too often, the mainstream media fail. In her best-selling book, "The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote," Sharyl Attkisson describes the trend toward transactional journalism, a too-cozy, quid pro quo relationship between reporters and certain politicians and other special interests, leading to a kind of bilateral cronyism. With this sort of arrangement, balance, objectivity, and fairness suffer, and the media fail in their mission.
Whether relationships are frankly transactional or journalists are simply lazy or prejudiced, there are innumerable examples of the public being misled by the press. We discuss several below that are divorced from partisan politics.
Electric vehicles may be the wave of the future because of cost and maintenance considerations, but the uncritical assumption that they benefit the environment currently is, to say the least, exaggerated. Even fully accepting the threat of climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, the impact of electric cars is minimal, at least for now. How can that be? The electricity has to be generated somehow, and given the United States's scandalous neglect of nuclear power, the sources are mostly carbon-intensive. The environmental impact of the manufacture and disposal of the batteries also runs counter to the narrative about carbon. And then there are the massive subsidies for the unimpressive benefits. Where is critical treatment of these issues in the mainstream media?
The media's reporting on organic agriculture and foods is a mixture of wishful thinking and ignorance. Reporters often assume that organic foods are somehow "better" -- perhaps because of their inflated prices – and seldom bother to do in-depth research. But organic agriculture's lower yields strain natural resources by wasting water and arable farmland, so it fails the sustainability test. Moreover, the often-invoked desire to avoid pesticides is a red herring: As biochemist Bruce Ames and his coauthors pointed out in a seminal 1990 article, 99.99% of the pesticidal substances we consume in our diet are produced by the plants themselves.
A study published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University's Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for "organic" were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.
And speaking of contamination, organic foods are highly susceptible to it. According to Bruce Chassy, professor of food science at the University of Illinois, "organic foods are recalled 4 to 8 times more frequently than their conventional counterparts."
Even the USDA openly admits that "organic standards" have no substantive value other than to define organics, but the government has become a marketing co-conspirator with the industry. Organic agriculture's dirty little secret is that it is kept afloat only by massive subsidies and nurturing by a panoply of USDA programs, by misleading advertising, and by "black marketing" that dishonestly disparages the competition.
The media ignore all this but can be relied on to report the phony "advocacy research" of the organic industry itself, which, of course, yields very different – and self-serving -- findings.
Ethanol in motor fuels
Finally, we come to the mainstream media's tacit acceptance of the federal mandate to add ethanol to motor fuels, although any defense of that policy must embrace a series of fallacies which include: (1) ethanol produced from corn makes the U.S. less dependent on fossil fuels, (2) ethanol lowers the price of gasoline, (3) an increase in the percentage of ethanol blended into gasoline boosts the overall supply of gasoline, and (4) ethanol is environmentally friendly and lowers global carbon dioxide emissions.
Politicians (especially from Iowa) like to say that ethanol is environmentally friendly, but these claims are misleading. Although corn is a renewable resource, it has a far lower yield relative to the energy used to produce it than ethanol from sugar cane. Moreover, ethanol yields about 33% less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly. Fuel costs for Americans are often artificially inflated due to the low energy content of ethanol (in spite of a possible octane boost) and the high costs faced by fuel companies trying to comply with ill-conceived fuel regulations.
Meanwhile, the media are more interested in the political maneuvering around corn ethanol than in the underlying facts. The truth is that the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) -- which mandates the ethanol blends -- has failed miserably in achieving any of its stated goals.
It has long been true in the media business that "if it bleeds, it leads," but sensationalism tinged with ignorance seems now to be the order of the day. Don't serious issues deserve more attention than a celebrity's love life, whether your cousin has unfriended you on Facebook, or trying to parse President Trump's tortured syntax?
The mainstream media are suffering from their lowest level of trust in decades, or perhaps ever. While it wouldn't have the irresistible magnetism of today's tweet storms, maybe they would inspire more credibility and loyalty if they were thorough, made an effort to be balanced, focused on issues that actually affect peoples' lives, and helped them make better choices. But longing for that reminds us of a favorite expression of economist Milton Friedman: It's like asking for a cat that barks.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies and is the co-inventor of relational databases. They were undergraduate classmates at M.I.T.