News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: P(ro)ersecuting the Press

Monday, May 22, 2006

P(ro)ersecuting the Press

This weekend, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez said that journalists who leak sensitive government information--such as in the NYTimes story on NSA domestic spying--should be prosecuted for divulging important state secrets. This phenomenon of p(ro/er)secuting journalists must be seen from the larger perspective.

The manipulation of the press and news stories goes back to the 1920s, when Edward Bernays (Hitler's favorite adman) and Walter Lippmann were actively helping ogvernments formulate campaigns of misinformation. One of my favorite authors, John Dos Passos, fictionalized this process in his USA trilogy. So, what we see happening today has a long and unhallowed history. ...

What seems unique in today's news environment is the trashing of any pretension to presenting hard news. The presumption, I'd argue, in the past was that the news media had a duty to present information that the public could use to make informed decisions. Granted, the issues and information were often distorted and pre-selected, but the news media still gave out the impression that hard news mattered.

Today's media seem to have given up that pretension. The working assumption these days is manifest in the tabloid journalism that we find not only in newspapers but also on TV. Information as infotainment has captured the media boardrooms and their cohort of lower level editors. The ostensible reason for this is that this tabloid trash is what the public wants.

Of course, we could all week debating the issue whether the news gives the public what they want or create that need. From the writings of Bernays and Lippmann and others, the suspicion tend toward the latter, ie, the media create the need as an adjunct to capitalist interests.

It has been suggested by some that the political spin-meisters and public relations professionals are as much caught up in a system that they neither control nor have much influence over. That is, the underlying socio-economic factors are such that the media technorati simply respond to trends and currents as best they can. This possibility, Alastair Hannay writes, is truly sinister.

If Hannay is right, then the modern political context is much more chaotic and prone to disorder than is commonly believed. It shows that the media specialists and politicos are as much outsiders as anyone else. Who is running the show, then, would seem to be those who control the economics, who themselves have merely greater and greater accrual of capital as their number one priority.

Hannay suggests that what's required is for people to gain an outsider's outsider vantage point in respect to the socio-political context. The journalists are key to this vantage point. For without them, citizens in a democratic republic will never be able to gain insight into the atrocious machinations at work in undermining the democratic ethos.

Calling on the spirit of Voltaire, whose journalistic work in the torture and imprisonment of an innocent man set the model for later generations of journalists, Hannay suggests that they must be allowed to fulfill their function as the outsider's outsider.

Therefore, any attempt to p(ro)ersecute the truth-tellers is indeed a sinister development. When the political machinery is marshaled to silence its only critics, there's much more at stake than a journalist's reputation or well-being. Yes, as Glenn notes, the implications for the democratic form of government many cherish is threatened. But--and perhaps more importantly--is the very ethical processes that are required to form individual citizens whose responsibilities include more than simply gratifying consumer appetites.

This true because a country is only as ethically strong as is its instruments for conveying and distributing the truth. Individuals nurtured on and catered to infotainment will lose the ability to ascertain and deliberate about moral and ethical issues. They will not have the ethical character to do so.

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