May 11, 2004

Free Press and Faux Journalism

The first duty of a free society is stand vigilant against those who would remove its freedoms. So it is also with a free press.

The public's right to know is under attack in the United States, sanctioned by congressional law, judicial fiat and executive disdain, and applauded by a public grown weary of the puffery of television news and the mediocrity of most daily newspapers or confused to the point of disinterest by the rise of faux journalism and its exploitive use of journalistic values to cloak personal or partisan interests.

That's why I was thrilled yesterday to see two prominent news executives fight back, to call for a staunching of the loss of freedoms and urge a recommitment to the values and ethics that separate actual journalists from those who just play one TV.

Tom Curley, president of the Associated Press, an organization not ordinarily associated with editorial leadership or progressive thinking, proposed a plan to create a media advocacy center in Washington to lobby for open government. He said in a speech:

"The government is pushing hard for secrecy. We must push back equally hard for openness. I think it's time to consider establishment of a focused lobbying effort in Washington." (Emphasis added)

Curley said Attorney General John Ashcroft has reversed "the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act." He said:

"The essence of the FOI Act is that government information is open and accessible to the public unless there is a very good reason to keep it secret. But under the attorney general's directive, department heads were told they should treat government information as secret unless presented with a very good reason to make it accessible. The agencies eagerly complied. Up went the barriers. Down came the official Internet sites and document databases." (Emphasis added.)

Curley also cited the recent incident involving U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who refused to allow reporters to record a speech in Hattiesburg, Miss., and ordered U.S. Marshals to erase reporters' voice recorders. The AP and Gannett filed suit in that case today.

Journalists need to abandon their pretext of impartiality and fight back, said Curley.

"I know that some in the journalism community would strongly disapprove of a project of this kind. They believe the role of journalists is to remain strictly impartial, and that express backing for even the best intended legislation would compromise that role. I respectfully disagree.

"The objection reminds me a little bit of the saying about the man who was "so broad minded that he wouldn't take his own side in a fight." A fight is what this is. A fight is what our system of government intends and expects it to be. (Emphasis added.)

Joining Curley on the offensive is Los Angeles Times Editor John S. Carroll, who, in a speech at the University of Oregon, attacked the "rise of pseudo-journalism in America." The college's campus newspaper quoted Carroll:

"All over the country there are offices that look like newsrooms and there are people in those offices that look for all the world just like journalists, but they are not practicing journalism. They regard the audience with a cold cynicism. They are practicing something I call a pseudo-journalism, and they view their audience as something to be manipulated." (Emphasis added.)

Carroll singled out Bill O'Reilly of Fox News' as one of a "'different breed of journalists' who misled their audience while claiming to inform them."

It is the belief in and adherence to the ethics of journalism that separates the real from the faux in the field - and these ethics are as equally important to a free press as freedom itself because without them the public has no way of distinguishing truth from propaganda.

Newspapers in particular have an obligation to protect a full and robust interpretation of the First Amendment by government and the courts because they are the nation's largest news-gathering institutions and on many local levels often are the only source of original reporting.

For journalists, it is time to take sides - to be for openness and against secrecy, to be for higher standards and against mediocrity, to be for depth, context and an informed public and against information that is sliced and diced to fit a specific political or social agenda.

To use, again, a quote someone left in my comments the other day: "Where there is no sunlight many cruel habits grow and are accepted as normal ..."

It is time be for sunshine - in our government and in our own profession.

 Tom Curley The Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture
 Oregon Daily Emerald (Univ. of Oregon) Esteemed journalist lectures on ethics

Posted by Tim Porter at May 11, 2004 08:30 AM

If you haven't come across it yet, you may want to have a look at the "Media Revolt Manifesto" Dave Neiwert promulgated at his blog, Orcinus.

Posted by: Michael on May 12, 2004 10:05 AM
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