The Challenges For Democracy


Article 6: Freedom of the Press
Do we want the news media to be free?

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole

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Will the press remain free in the US? Can the press, in its race for audience summoning headlines, regulate itself any better than other businesses which have shown minimal self-restraint in the face of competition? Is the press simply a pawn of the government? "I get no respect" may soon be the forlorn cry of the news media.

Consider:

  • CBS News, having lost its #1 news position after Cronkite, suffered a humiliating dive over charges of sloppy journalism as the Rather era concluded. "CNNAccess: Cronkite: News industry 'vastly different'"
  • President Bush seems to be using the press for propaganda, disguised as news reports. ABC News: Government Blurring the Line on News?
  • In this era of audience segmentation and news variety, some news personalities and programs seem to be more interested in entertainment and slant than in factual news.
  • Many viewers consider news reports that are critical, to reveal media bias.
  • Reporters are once again threatened with jail when they fail to reveal their sources, this time over leaks inside the government that exposed a CIA Operative identity. Who misused who - the press or government officials? The Nation: "A White House Smear"
  • Reporters and news media in several states have leaked the content of a government report on how terrorists could best kill us. CTV.ca: "U.S. report outlines possible terrorist attacks"
  • Putin suppresses free press.
  • The editor of the Catholic magazine, America, was removed by the Vatican. It is thought that he questioned official church positions on gay marriage, stem cell research, and salvation for non-Christians. Such thoughts may not be the dialogue that should go on within the Catholic church - better to simply clearly explain church positions?
  • A Newsweek magazine article about desecration of the Koran provided the long awaited spark that ignited protests by those Muslims who hate the US.
  • Time Magazine embarks on "Journalism with a Conscience." Time online edition: Journalism with a Conscience
  • Baseball players use steroids. What? Why is this in here?

I'm not convinced that CBS wanted to remain the news leader after Cronkite. It's a very expensive role to support, and the prime time $s don't come from the news half hour. Why not share the burden with other rivals? But that is my opinion. Strategy - sometimes you purposefully lose to get what you really want.

What is the press up to? Hardly a week goes by without the press itself becoming the news. The good news is that the press polices itself... well, kind of.

Sometimes I look at stories and wonder, "What were they thinking?" Does the blood lust for fresh news blind reporters and editors to any thought of responsible journalism? Exposing the name of a CIA operative? Telling terrorists the ten best ways to kill all of us?

I, too, could be a diabolical genius. Well, my brain is two sizes too small, so maybe diabolical anyway. I know of ways to terrorize the US. Do I share those thoughts? No. It would be an unethical and immoral action. Strategy: don't tell your enemies exactly how to destroy you - it's like sending them an invitation. I often wonder about the wisdom of thriller writers who do just exactly that. Such information makes good plots and shows the genius of the writer, and gets them invited to security meetings to help officials understand what potentially could happen. Yet plots like the recent 24 series on FOX TV, on overheating a system of nuclear plants, are just as effective at attracting audiences, but totally impossible.

I'm not sure what the strategy is in the government releasing terrorism vulnerability information in a way in which it could flee into the public news media. Officials tell us regularly that it is all but impossible to guard our borders, protect "soft" targets, such as public places, protect the passenger trains, etc., and that if terrorists really want to strike us, they can get it done. But why go so far as to tell them exactly where to strike for maximum effect?

I don't like characterizations, but some days I see some reporters as people sitting around waiting to do tricks for government pimps. In four of the items in the preceding list, we really don't know whether officials in the government used the press to leak information, or if the press found information and then revealed it. This is a very important piece of information that would certainly color how that news is heard. If someone is leaking information, they must have a reason that we should find out.

Have government officials withheld information about Bush's military service? Have opponents planted damaging information? How much did Bush manipulate the media for his own political goals? Did officials in the government leak information about a CIA operative's identity for vengeance? Do officials leak information on terrorism vulnerabilities to the press to raise support for more funding or other goals? Should so called "leaks" be investigated by the press to find out what is really going on?

The press and the government maintain a balance of power. The press is a vital check against misuse of government power. Investigations and leaks are ways that the press obtains information that helps keep the government in check. It is very hard for the government to coerce the press into revealing informants. But when are the press and the people unwitting dupes, being played by government officials, and when does the press go too far in revealing things that it really shouldn't? Bush recently exposed the question of government credibility in the press by putting out news releases and not labeling them as government sponsored. How far are he, and others in government, willing to go in press deception?

As Jerry Springer found out, it is difficult to paint yourself in flamboyant and garish colors, and then try to do something respectable. His outrageous television program kept him from public office. His credibility was gone.

Some actions just don't command respect. But what should the press report? Should it become like the historic and current Roman Catholic Church and oppose open dialogue? Keeping information from the public has been a policy of church leaders from the earliest years. What does this do to credibility? Should the press be suppressed, as Putin repressed certain outspoken and trouble causing elements of the Russian press?

Should the press be shunned, as some in the US press would like to do to Al-Jazeera (which is regularly shunned by nearly every Middle East [Arab, Persian] government for printing the truth)? Is airing bin Laden pronouncements, or correspondents having advance news access to terrorist activity, any different than Newsweek printing news that may incite negative responses from those who hate the US (albeit probably unwittingly)?

Let's think about baseball for a moment. Baseball players use steroids. Why is this in here?

What is the difference between watching a baseball player hulked up on steroids, and watching a batting machine with a stronger spring? What is the difference between playing a video game with one person having an average processor in his computer and a slow Internet connection, while the other player has the highest speed, over-clocked, high speed FSB computer with a high speed Internet connection?

These "games" offer people the ability to improve and demonstrate their skills. Video game makers often put safeguards in their system to prevent people from cheating, but there is little they can do about computer speed. The person with the faster system often wins. In baseball, the home run kings will be those who pump up their bodies on steroids so they can hit the ball farther. Denial, denial, denial - "Steroids don't give you any advantage." Well, duh - who of us were born yesterday? Why take steroids if they don't help you?

We appreciate people who develop natural skill and show the human potential. When people artificially develop skill, it is an ethical and moral problem. Instead of showing us human potential, they are showing us batting machines with stronger springs. Like unethical news reporting, steroid use is difficult to stop. Why would a sports team owner shoot himself in the foot by exposing and punishing his highest money-making players for taking steroids?

The questions of responsibility in reporting and responsibility in baseball are all too typical of the larger problems in our overly competitive society. A "winning at all costs" attitude has to be replaced by a sense of personal responsibility and ethical conduct. There is something more important than getting the story out. There is something more important than the public's "right to know," which seems to be just an "absolutist" excuse for unrestrained journalism. Responsibility and ethics are higher values.

I think that there are five categories of news, in order of credibility:

  1. Media that try to present in-depth reports on all sides of current issues, such as PBS (NPR/PRI), and some network news feature programs that do in-depth journalism.
  2. Media that feature reports from journalists who find, investigate, verify, and weigh the news. Many of these stories choose an interesting slant from which to report, but this approach and time constraints leave out important details.
  3. Media that feature investigative journalism, interviews, and personal opinions from various sources. Investigative journalism exposes what "may" be problems and warrant further investigation. Interviews and personal opinions are basically commentary to gain perspective (which is important and may uncover unverified facts), but is not factual news.
  4. Reports from unnamed sources. "Unnamed" leaves open the questions of credibility and potential manipulation.
  5. Sensationalism and news entertainment, such as the Comedy Channel Daly Show (which I enjoy); Rush Limbaugh and news talk shows, and some religious, and conservative or liberal news groups, all who slant news according to their interpretive perspective.

I'm not the judge of news and what is newsworthy, and typically refrain from classification systems because the lines are never pure. However, irresponsible behavior is not long tolerated - a free press depends on tolerance and public support. I do think that the various news media should reveal whether they are trying to be closer to a 1 or a 5.

The high standard of most journalists

It is obvious that many journalists try very hard not only to report the important facts of news stories, but also have a conscience about the types of stories that they do and the other work they do when not on a story. The stories that the media present are choices. People who don't "care," don't do stories well that invite caring. I wish Peter Jennings Godspeed in his battle with cancer - he is just one of several that I watch regularly - the story choices are good.

Time magazine, in their March 14, 2005 edition, presented an article, "Journalism with a Conscience," by Managing Editor James Kelly. The article was about several stories and photo awards on humanitarian issues, and featured a story that they chose to do on Jeffrey Sachs' book, The End of Poverty.

The phrase is commonly heard, "Nobody cares about Africa." Much of Africa is poverty. (The phrase comes from the movie, Hotel Rwanda.) Time chose to report on Sudan. Time reported on Sachs' book.

The challenge for democracy is to understand what keeps a press free, and act on it.

We are not just what we eat, not just what we think, but as attitude reveals, we are most of all the choices that we make.

- Scott

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