Sunday, February 11, 2007

Media - "surrogate" or servant of the public?

MATA MUSING COMMENTARY: If you've read enough of this blog, you'll know I've spent many a post railing against the lack of journalistic responsbility, and the power to influence (and thereby ultimately control) public opinion.

I've come up with a few ways that would improve the deteriorating confidence in the media, none of which would be implemented until hell freezes over... which listening to other media types should be right around the corner now as part of the impact of global warming.

And while some of my suggestion are delivered tongue-in-cheek, there are a few that I believe *should* be taken quite seriously as a new direction for media.

I'll use an op-ed by Eric Deggans' op-ed, A report from the media's front line, appearing in today's St. Petersburg Times (FL, not Russia...), as the case in point.

Mr. Deggans' commentary about an assault on the freedom of the press apparently includes his being "jarred" by public opinion that suggests journalists should have (self-placed, not gov't mandated) limits on what they publish.

For journalists who have always believed we were serving as a surrogate for the public, it is jarring to see, at the start of News War's second installment, crowds gathered at the New York Times protesting its decision to publish details of a government spying program.

Mr. Deggans, by use of his own phrase "surrogate for the public", demonstrates astonishing chutzpah. Had he used "servant" of the public, it may have been more conducive to the intended role of the media... to serve the public by the dissemination of information for educational purposes.

But surrogate? "to put in the place of another, or to appoint as successor, deputy, or substitute for oneself"? Perhaps a Freudian slip of the tongue, but the man sounds like he's been given the mission to act as curriculum director of my life's education. This reeks of the notion that only a media member knows what issues and slants of such are fit for my consumption. And who the heck "appointed" him this lofty postition in my life anyway?

continued ensuing paragraph....

Correspondent Lowell Bergman draws a potent contrast, juxtaposing coolly erudite New York Times editor Bill Keller insisting that "terrorists tend to assume (government has) extraordinary powers" with an angry, plain-spoken President Bush thundering, "It was a shameful act . . . to disclose this very important program in a time of war." No wonder average people are demanding their right not to know. In this war of images, those who create media accounts every day have forgotten how to tell their own stories.

There's another of those Freudian slips... "tell their own stories". News is not "your" story, Mr. Deggans. News is not "all about you" or your peers.

But back to his point of journalistic presentation. I'll have to vehemently disagree here. I don't believe Seymour Hersh "forgot" how to tell *his* story of accusing the WH of "domestic spying". What Mr. Hersh forgot is basic, ethical journalism - how to be neutral, impartial and, most importantly, demonstrate an iota of responsbility INRE consequences of that story - i.e. yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre or, in this case, rendering a potentially valuable intel gathering program about an insidious enemy useless.

And, after more examination of "Mr. Hersh's" story, and finding that the Chicken Little charge of pervasive privacy loss thru "domestic spying" was overstating the issue more than a tad, it is the very fact that Mr. Hersh risked our potential safety, without regard, that the public protests so loudly.

To put it bluntly, few of us are worried about the "4th branch of power's" loss of freedoms due to gov't oppression. But they do need to worry about oppression from us, the public. I, like many, want to see those of you who wield the power of the pen/keyboard/microphone worthy of such power.

I truly believe it is humanly impossible to be totally unbiased. And the notion that reporters *are* is the very foundation of most of our media woes. So perhaps to improve the media's effectiveness, we should address that foundation.

News is better interpreted if one knows where the source is coming from. And thereby, eliminates most misinformation and misinterpretation. We can clearly see this is one angle of the facts, if we know from where that angle originates.

A good example of this is the effectiveness of debates - the presentation of an issue must come from one point or another, and the side from which the points are made is known from the onset.

Our Congressional membership always have an "R", "D", or "I" after their names. Again, we have some clue to their core beliefs when listening to their take on events.

Should the press be any different? Or are we to continue holding them to the impossible standard of not having an opinion? Who are we kidding here? With all they see, they are likely to be the most opinionated of humans. So article content ought to have a labeling system.

Another thing... if I'm to surrender the power to choose my life's curriculum to a media "surrogate", then I want some strict qualifications for that power. Hang, we don't send our kids to school without having guidelines for teachers. Why should I blindly accept any second rate journalist to be my educator without first knowing something about who they are, where they came from, what they believe, and their agenda as a journalist? Usually it's some form of "change the world". So is it not fair for us to want to know just what changes they want for our world?

We already see these problems in US colleges with supposedly "neutral" liberal and/or conservative professors, and the increasing challenges to their suitability as instructors.

One of the first important qualifications for a media "surrogate" is that they recognize their own humanity, their culture, their freedoms, and their own moral codes. I do not expect them to be sans opinion, and I don't expect them to be able to straddle the information fence with any dexterity either. So quit trying to convince me you are, and disclose, disclose, disclose please.

Articles should be plainly labeled "NEWS" or "OP-ED" or "COMMENTARY". And the defining difference should be if it contains one iota of personal interpretation of the facts. At least a busy public has a chance to know, right at headline position, what is simple, factual information, and what is a writer's opinion and interpretation of factual information.

In the case of Seymour Hersh and the NYT's exposure of the NSA surveillance program, the interpretation/presentation as "news" made all the difference to an unwitting public. The ominous, chilling label "domestic spying" was designed to incite public reponse, accepted as "true" without question then, and has since been indoctrinated into the sound byte educated public as undisputable "fact".

So headlines cannot be tabloid sensations in nature, must relate to the first paragraph of data, and public references to the source data must be provided so we can read for ourselves. These articles can be labed as "CONFIRMED NEWS" or "CONFIRMED COMMENTARY". If it is that "protect the source" stuff they love to do...i.e, a political game of gossip - then it must be labeled "UNCONFIRMED".

Lastly, this brings us to the misuse of the power of the media, and the penalties for such. Afterall, in their self-proclaimed "watch dog" status, do they not demand accountability for misuse of power? Or is that accountability reserved only for elected and gov't positions, wealthy CEO's - or simply for anyone but the press?

Mr. Deggans and other media elites' wring their hands in fear that they are losing their power to influence. And in one way, they are. But it's not coming from oppressive gov't mandates.

Instead they are being oppressed by the public who "gets it", and turns their fury on the sources exercising the poor judgement. Joe Blow citizenry, like myself, are tired of misrepresentation to advance a journalist's personal agenda. And our penalty is market driven. Circulation rates are going down for print media. The esteem of the media is somewhere down there below Congress, who is below Bush, who is above lawyers, and used car salemen.

Penalties by the free market are appropriate. Poor performance and product being rewarded by financial failures. But what of something affecting national security - as exposing military intel and strategy in a time of war? Is economic penalty enough? I say not.

I submit that journalists owe loyalties to the culture that allows them the freedom to make journalistic (mis)judgements without facing beheading as a penalty. We certainly wouldn't find al Jazeera reporting Bin Laden's throwing another 911 planning party at his favorite cave in Afghanistan next Saturday night. The media for the bad guys knows full well that exposing the enemy's game plan could cost them their life without a trial. Their allegiance is solid, even if driven by fear.

It's reprehensible that the free media finds it so simple to bite the hand that sustains them. Whispering what the war game players hold in their poker hands to a breathless world audience because they have the freedom to do so is not acceptable to me. "Freedom of the press" does not come by evoking unnecessary risks for ordinary innocents' lives.

Instead, I believe that broadcasting intelligence programs, military strategy or anything else that may hinder a nation prosecuting a war is an act of treason. Nor do I believe the 1st Amendment was constructed to elevate any American journalist above Constitutional law. They are still citizens, despite their career choice. There is no country called "the press".

My opinion? If you expose such sensitive material during a time of war, you should be subject to laws that deal with such action in this country... and your media status be damned. Reporters should not be allowed to hide behind "sources", but should be treated as accomplices in the exposure of that information.

To do so would insure that journalists, as well as their whistle blower sources, would be completely sure that what they are writing about (and it's consequences) is important enough to risk their own freedom and way of life. Right now, they are given an easy pass and a few days jail time. Hardly a reason to think more than twice in exchange for the headlines, fame and attentions.

One more thing. Mr. Deggans, count me amongst those who don't feel the need to "know" everything, despite your belief I should. I'm a bright enough light bulb to know a successful war strategy often depends as few people as possible being in the know. And if that surprises or "jars" you, get used to it.


UPDATE 2/11/07

Evidently I'm joined in my media ire by Thomas Sowell, an illustrious media'ite himself. In today's Sowell commentary, "All the News?", appearing in Jewish World Review, Mr. Sowell touches on the same "mislabeling" habit. His commentary is addressing the NYT's data on American women and marriage. But here is his opening and closing paragraphs that relate to my above rant. Read in entirety at link above.

The latest in a long line of New York Times editorials disguised as "news" stories was a recent article suggesting that most American women today do not have husbands. Partly this was based on census data — but much more so on creative definitions.


The New York Times' long-standing motto, "All the News That's Fit to Print," should be changed to reflect today's reality: "Manufacturing News to Fit an Ideology."

Amen to that, Mr. Sowell.

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