Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:June 29th, 2007 06:42 EST
A Free or a Free-er Press?  Hot copy #27

A Free or a Free-er Press? Hot copy #27

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(Transcript of Del Marbrook`s Hot Copy, a weekly podcast by the Student Operated Press)

United States foreign policy is predicated on promoting democratic institutions. When you consider such institutions, the right to vote and a free press are paramount among them. But do we have a free press or do we have a free-er press, and if it is a free-er press, then free-er than what?

I believe we do not have an incontestably free press, but we do have a press free-er than almost any other world power has ever had. But, more importantly, we have a constitution that guarantees a free press"guarantees but is unable to deliver it.

Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine envisioned a press that would keep public and private corruption in check. Often the press has done just that, but not always and not reliably. Jefferson himself saw the flaw in his vision when he wrote:

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

When you consider the loss of jobs to illegal immigrant and overseas labor, the wretched state of health care, the obscene levels of corporate welfare and tax evasion, the tyranny of insurance companies over our everyday life, you can readily see that Jefferson, as usual, was prescient.

But I have omitted from that short list of corporate misdeeds the very issue that makes our press free-er than most but not free, and that is commercial censorship, which has been with us from the start. We did not wish the British to tell us what to read, but we allowed business interests to tell us what to read from the beginning." We rationalized this flaw in our founding vision by telling ourselves that business interests are so diverse that all points of view would somehow be represented in the press. But this turned out to be only partly true, because all businesses have in common certain concerns that lead them in various ways and degrees to censor the media they own and operate for profit. And the profit motive itself often militates against full disclosure of the facts.

Full disclosure is an important term, because the press often obfuscates when it comes to answering its critics. Someone"sometimes it`s a reporter within a news organization"will say, "Let`s investigate this." "Oh, we`ve already done that," an editor will answer. And the answer will be truthful as far as it goes, but it won`t go far enough. Just writing about something controversial doesn`t mean the press has fully covered it. But does it have an obligation to fully cover anything? No, not legally. There is no constitutional obligation to fully cover controversial subjects, such as government corruption or lying. But there was an expectation among our Founding Fathers that the press would be absolutely free to cover such stories, and not only to cover them, but to express their publisher`s opinions about them.

What wasn`t envisioned, and probably couldn`t have been, was that large, sometimes multinational, corporations would buy up small independent publications everywhere in the country and operate them from a distance, exercising commercial censorship in which maximizing profit takes precedent over any kind of implied obligation to fully inform the public about issues of vital concern to the public. Jefferson, as we`ve seen, was worried about the power of corporations to corrupt society and government, which is exactly what has happened, but his was a macro-vision. He did not foresee exactly how corporate corruption would play out with regard to the Fourth Estate, which he and others conceived as essential to the health of the republic.

Hence there is an inevitable measure of hypocrisy in our much-vaunted claims to have and to encourage a free press, and it is not an hypocrisy of which our overseas critics are ignorant. I leave for another day the corollary question of how much capitalism impinges on a true democracy, but I will remind listeners in passing that the vote-tampering scandals that have recently plagued us do not bode well.

Press lord Rupert Murdoch`s recent handsome bid for Dow Jones Company and its crown jewel, the venerable Wall Street Journal, raised the specter of" the nation`s second largest daily newspaper morphing into a print and online clone of Murdoch`s propagandistic Fox News.

While members of the Bancroft family, which owns most of the company`s shares, mull over the acquisitive Australian`s offer, it is a good time to consider the state of the Fourth Estate. No doubt Murdoch would sound the death knell for the staid Journal`s reputation for responsible journalism. No journalist in his right mind would call his Fox News or his New York Post responsible. They have an agenda, and the barrier between newsroom and business offices is imaginary. Nor is it any comfort to know that this same barrier is deteriorating in the majority of news operations. What has always been remarkable about The Wall Street Journal is that while its editorial voice is predictably conservative, its news operation has been both balanced and courageous, even when the facts led to stories unfavorable to business and conservative interests. This is no small thing to say about a news organization, and Murdochian tampering with it would represent a significant loss to the overall quality of American journalism.

But this is not to say that the Journal or any other newspaper has been reliably willing to poke into every corrupt business or official practice. The Journal has simply been more willing than most to do so. Its editorial pages have always been staunchly conservative, and one could compile a long list of corporate misdeeds that the Journal has not challenged. Like every other newspaper in the country, the world view of the Journal`s editorialists have influenced its newsroom. The question is not whether but how much.

Every news organization has its process-oriented people and its goal-oriented people. The process people tend to rise to leadership positions in a news organization because they play ball. They`re perceived by ownership as team players. But the goal-oriented people are often mavericks, more interested in the story than pleasing their corporate masters. This is a well known but not much discussed problem in journalism, and every young journalist soon finds out whether he or she is a process or a goal person. In this era of media consolidation the process person is ascendant. This might be called the golden age of the person equipped by nature and disposition to read the boss`s mind and affirm it in its prejudices. This is definitely not the golden age of the outspoken maverick.

When Spiro T. Agnew, before he disgraced himself, began talking about the liberal media during the Nixon years, I, like many other journalists, asked myself, Where are these liberal media this guy is talking about?" He meant newspapers like The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, and anybody who thinks these newspapers are liberal is an ideologue. The Times is, at best, slightly to the right of the middle of the road. The Washington Post, since its Watergate heyday, has moved steadily rightward, and The Sun in Agnew`s time was a thoughtfully moderate newspaper. But by perpetuating the myth that our media were overwhelmingly liberal, Agnew & Company paved the way for a profound shift from conservative to hard right among American media. It was a hoax of monumental proportions, and it has run true to P.T. Barnum`s adage that you not only have to fool the public, you have to keep it fooled. The public remains steadfastly fooled by the liberal media myth.

When most American newspapers were independent, they were conservative, because their owners were conservative, but they did diverge in their views and they felt a sense of responsibility to the communities in which they arose. What is so bad about the current consolidation of ownership is that today`s absentee owners feel no responsibility to community, but only to their bottom lines, and because they are fewer they quite reasonably represent a narrower array of views." But the business interests of their owners and of the newspapers themselves always constituted a kind of commercial censorship.

It was rarely the kind of raw manipulation in which an owner flies off the handle and starts throwing his weight around the newsroom"although that certainly happened from time to time"it was rather an ambiance in which the newsroom executives who rose to the top were the ones most adept at watching their step and also most inclined to pander to the owners. I would like to put it more delicately, but this is the way it is and always was. Some of these executives were and are extraordinarily adept at protecting newsrooms from owner manipulation, but when push comes to shove, owners must be pleased.

In recent years another kind of censorship has appeared in the newspaper and book industries, that of the marketer. It used to be among newspapers that editors were able to draw a line between their newsrooms and the advertising and circulation departments of their newspapers. No more. The absentee bottom-liners have allowed the advertising sales people and the circulation experts to throw their weight around the newsroom, and the result has been the trivialization of content." The marketers generally argue that serious investigative reportage doesn`t sell advertising lineage. They argue for more entertainment, more human interest features, more celebrity pulse-taking. They argue for paparazzi journalism, and the result is that newsrooms are shrinking, and government and business are not getting the scrutiny required to keep them honest. Some people would like to see a right-wing conspiracy in this squalid fact. It certainly serves the right-wing worldview, but what it serves even more is the desire to squeeze every penny from a news organization. Good reportage costs money. Bad reportage and infotainment cost much less It`s much cheaper to cover the trivial and boring behavior of Paris Hilton than it is to uncover corporate corruption in Iraq.

This is Hot Copy, and I`m Del Marbrook. If you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.

For More Information:"