Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On Journalistic Duties

Will Bunch has a good post on this topic on his blog, Attytood. I posted a clip of it on Eschaton, but I want to discuss it in greater depth here. Bunch says this early on in his post:

The real enemy of American journalism is a fifth column, rising up from within ourselves. It's the editors and critics who self-righteously attack "errors" in journalism while erring on the side of pro-government, pro-Establisment timidity every day. The self-appointed defenders of media ethics who swat flies while completely losing sight of why newspapers and an independent media exist in the first place, and what they are supposed to stand for. The captains of alleged honor and integrity who prefer to go down with the ship, watching the waves of citizens in search of real news migrate somewhere else, somewhere that's not drowning in reassuring yet false "objectivity."

This is the gist of it: who does the media serve? All other answers follow from the answer to that question. My idealistic hope is that the media is to serve truth first, to the extent that truth can be defined and discussed. This requires that many different voices are being heard and that journalists are properly trained in the ways of reporting and gathering evidence.

But a different (though not necessarily a contradictory) answer might be that the media are to serve the people, and this is the answer that Bunch pursues. How will the people be best served? Is it through a media that is timid and conciliatory towards the government or through a media that is aggressive and cynical? Clearly, the latter is on the whole more likely to unearth government scandals than the former, though the media could function well with some of both types of journalists as well as those in the middle.

These musings are always relevant, but especially today. The media has become so commercialized that its existence is more dependent on the pursuit of stories with enough shock value than on anything that "the people" might need to know. At the same time, the politics of reporting have become more polarized, the public's trust in the media has evaporated and we have a government which plays the media as it wishes.

So what we learn and hear is that a bride has run away, that Michael Jackson is in court, that Newsweek wrote a story which it couldn't substantiate about what happened in Guantanamo Bay. What we don't learn or hear is the significance of the Downing Street Memo, the earlier evidence on desecration of the Koran, from other sources than the one Newsweek used. We don't even learn or hear the deeper message in the runaway bride stories or the Michael Jackson stories: about fundamentalist marriages, about the enormous wedding industry, about pedophilia in high places.

It is not enough. Adding blogs to the stew is not enough. Getting news from foreign sources is not enough, though it helps. I'm not sure what would suffice, but talking about the current problems is the first necessary step.