Monday, May 16, 2005

A Few Prosecutions?

Proverbs 18:7-8 (New Living Translation)

7 “The mouths of fools are their ruin; their lips get them into trouble.
8What dainty morsels rumors are--but they sink deep into one's heart.”

Solomon wisely saw the folly of misplaced words and the damage they can do. Too bad that Newsweek’s writers and editorial staff didn’t take the time to consider them before they printed what they did last week.

I’m a bit behind the curve on the news these days. I just found out that a story, printed last Monday in this esteemed weekly, has ignited a firestorm of violence in the Muslim world. As of the latest report I’ve seen there are at least fifteen dead in riots from the Gaza Strip to Afghanistan.

According to Newsweek:

“Michael Isikoff and John Barry reported in a brief item in our Periscope section that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that American guards at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had committed infractions in trying to get terror suspects to talk, including in one case flushing a Qur'an down a toilet.”

Knowing what the press believes about the U.S. military, it all seemed to fit

The problem with the story, though, was that the “knowledgeable government source” they used to prop the story up may not have been so knowledgeable after all.

Now, with the body count, riots, and who knows what in the future, Newsweek issued this “apology”:

“We believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence,” Whitaker wrote. “But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.”

In one sense that’s little that Newsweek can do now. A retraction isn’t going to miraculously resurrect those who died in the rioting, nor is it going to reverse the anti-American sentiment that is seething in the Arab world. I suppose that’s as much as they can do, or care to do.

Now, with the apology issued, Newsweek has gotten what it wanted out of the episode – dead bodies, carnage, anti-Americanism, and confirmation of their low opinion of the U.S. military.

The flimsy “mea culpa” isn’t going to hurt them as much as it has already hurt fifteen people or the American image in the Arab world.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. There’s little doubt that Osama bin Laden will be using this little snippet in his recruiting videos and propaganda pamphlets.

Now I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure that here locally Patrick Kelley and the boys down at the Gazette will be finding creative ways to defend what Newsweek did in their “report.” I’d be willing to bet on it.

The defense will come in two forms. First, we’ll be told to adopt a “wait and see” attitude about this. To that I respond, “Tell me what else I can do? I’ll be reading all about it and watching it develop. I’m as good at reading body counts as the next guy and I know an angry face or mob when I see it.” I’d like to tell them that they shouldn’t treat the public like fools, but that message hasn’t gotten through for years. Their wisdom, by virtue of position, pitted against public ignorance, is one of the cardinal operating assumptions of the press these days.

But the last, and most important, line of defense here will be freedom of the press. We’ll be reminded that:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

We’ll hear it ad-nauseum. “Don’t trample on the freedom of the press.” It won’t be voiced, but we’ll all get the message - freedom of the press trumps all other freedoms. They’ll do everything but tell us to bow in their presence, and they’ll come dangerously close to that.

They’ll drag out Thomas Jefferson, prime author of the Declaration of Independence, in their defense:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

They’ve done it before. They’ll do it again. It’s the nature of the “beast.”

Of course, few, other than the lunatic fringe, would advocate abrogating press freedom. But that won’t matter.

The Gazette has raised the “freedom of the press card” to me before when they’ve been confronted with the wayward nature of their work. I’ve told them that if I ever heard the sound of hobnailed boots tramping down Merchant Street to stop the presses I’d be the first one down there with my blunderbuss to defend them. But that didn’t make any difference then; nor will it in this current circumstance. They’ll drag out the age old scare tactic and beat us with until we’re as raw as a piece of red meat.

They’ll say little about the responsible use of freedom. When confronted with it they’ll remind us that they have apologized (what a noble touch) and that we need to move on to the next (created) crisis.

I’ll try my best to remind them that their icons have also rendered other opinions, opinions about their abuse of privilege:

“Our newspapers, for the most part, present only the caricatures of disaffected minds. Indeed, the abuses of the freedom of the press here have been carried to a length never before known or borne by any civilized nation.” --Thomas Jefferson to M. Pictet, 1803.

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.” --Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807.

But it won’t make any difference.

I’ll even try to remind them that at one point in history their champion even had the audacity to recommend that the public not read newspapers at all:

“The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.” --Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807.

It won’t matter.

I’ll even try to remind them that Jefferson himself once advocated a “few prosecutions”:

“A few prosecutions of the most prominent [Federalist] offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses.”

“So what,” they’ll respond.

The bottom line to this sordid episode is that there’s little we can do that will have an impact on the press in this regard. It never has; it never will. It’s the nature of the “beast.”

I’d like to think that the press has the interests of this country at heart. I’d really like to think that. But it sure seems to me that they have no interest but their own agenda, rooted in the belief that they are our watchdogs, in mind. In the early seventies I took a class in journalism to fulfill a requirement in my major (communications). Required reading for the course was John Hulteng’s “The Fourth Estate.” Chapter seventeen, titled “who watches the watchdog?” began with the observation that the “only meaningful quality control being brought to bear on the mass media today lies within the consciences of the men who own and operate those media.” Knowing that, Hulteng posed a few questions:

“The question inevitably works its way to the fore: is internal conscience enough protection? Does society’s watchdog need watching? If so, what kind of mastiff would be appropriate to the assignment.”

They were good questions then, and they’re good questions today. The problem is that there really isn’t any answer that’s enforceable or will make the press realize its obligation to the rest of us. Unfortunately, we have to rely on their “internal consciences.” Till that conversion happens, miraculously, en masse, we’ll continue to be treated to spectacles like Newsweek’s story, the ensuing bloodbath, followed by a tepid apology. It’s the nature of the “beast.”


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, very close to what I myself was thinking. The Jefferson quotes alone were worth the read.

Anonymous said...

A mastiff to watchdog a conscience?

How can a watchdog watch what doesn't exist? After all, a conscience isn't trendy.

A professor told me, "Seeing is believing." It doen't make for hip cool rap, flashy bodice boundaries, sexy abortions, and is not "secularly humanistic." It's frowned on at your nearest university. It doesn't sell used cars or the UN or the win accompishments of the miltary, and inhibits license and freedom of cannibalism. It poos natural sexual relations between same sexes. Rich Hollywood can't afford it. It curbs numerous thrilling diseases, their limited cures, and shortened lives. Well,...

Ya' sur there ez sech ah thang en tha nuws buziness?!?

"Go gettem, Biff!"

Jim Baxter said...

If they don't have a conscience then they ought to go for a simple uncomplicated Loyalty to a Standard.


Allan said...

The answer is that editors could ask two simple questions about each item crossing their desks:

1) What good is served by knowledge of this information?
2) What harm is likely to ensue from knowledge of this information?

But that would require clarity of thought, a commodity in short supply among today's intellegentsia.