Who Will Keep the Sun Shining?

The news media’s annual celebration of Sunshine Week, which takes place March 10-16, has always called to mind the importance of access to government information, transparency of public records, and the idea that the free flow of information is an essential element of “good government.”

Created by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) in 2005, the event was timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of Founding Father James Madison, a strong supporter of the Bill of Rights.  It has always been envisioned as a celebration of the Freedom of Information Act signed into law on July 4, 1966, which outlined mandatory disclosure provisions for federal documents and records.

Continue reading “Who Will Keep the Sun Shining?”

We Are Not Charlie. We Are Weak.

The worst aspect of the Charlie Hebdo affair is that human beings were murdered for practicing free speech.  A distant second is the way this affair, and the earlier hacking of the Sony Pictures studio, has exposed the pieties and inadequacies of so much of the media.

Speaking the other day at the Consumer Electronics Show, Kazuo Hirai, CEO of Sony Corp., is reported to have said that he was proud “of all of the employees of Sony Pictures for standing up against the extortionist efforts of those criminals that attacked” the company.

Really?  No acknowledgment that the studio belatedly moved to release the film only after being criticized by virtually everyone in the country up to and including the president?

And despite the happy profusion of “Je Suis Charlie” displays, what has been the response of American media companies to that monstrous act?  As reported in Politico on Jan. 7, CNN senior editorial director, Richard Griffiths, sent a message to CNN staff saying, among other things, that “Video or stills of street protests showing Parisians holding up copies of the offensive cartoons, if shot wide, are OK.  Avoid close-ups of the cartoons that make them clearly legible.”

And here, according to a piece in Rolling Stone, is the way the Associated Press described its decision regarding the Hebdo cartoons: “We’ve taken the view that we don’t want to publish hate speech or spectacles that offend, provoke or intimidate, or anything that desecrates religious symbols or angers people along religious or ethnic lines. …  We don’t feel that’s useful.”

Even the Hollywood bible, Variety magazine, adds to the general alarm:

A brutal attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed has jolted Hollywood, escalating concerns by artists and producers that major studios and networks may avoid greenlighting movies and TV shows with potentially inflammatory content….

Freedom of speech is under attack, but, given Sony’s initial decision to pull the release of The Interview and its subsequent about-face, it’s not clear how rousing a defense the entertainment business is willing to mount in the midst of financial pressures, political dangers, and the threat of violence.

Making matters incalculably worse is the fact that the most immediate threats to free speech in this country don’t come from abroad, but from here at home.  As described three years ago by Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post, we are witnessing the censoring of speech under one of four rationales: Speech is blasphemous; Speech is hateful; Speech is discriminatory; Speech is deceitful.

Shortly after the Sony affair broke open, Ross Douthat, the loneliest and bravest journalist at the New York Times, wrote one of the most powerful paragraphs about that, and related, matters:

Of course it had to escalate this way.  We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and CEOs defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies.  A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

So why should anyone be remotely surprised when Kim Jong-un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?

So what to do?  Enforcement of the First Amendment won’t suffice because it only proscribes governmental abridgement of free speech, and only, of course, in the United States.

Here are a couple suggestions.  The next time you read or hear something that you think is truly awful, moronic, hateful, or false, send a comment by email, text, or social media stating your objections but also saying that you respect the right of the offending party to speak his or her piece.

And when you hear of some group or individual threatening advertisers with boycotts for advertising on programs they don’t like, contact those same advertisers yourself and let them know that you have a different view.

In the end, free speech can be guaranteed, if at all, not by the press or government, but only by the people.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  This article was originally published here in the online edition of USA Today on Jan. 15, 2015.

The MSM: In a Horse Race to Irrelevancy?

Perhaps because of their declining prospects, much of the mainstream media are acting very hinky these days.  On the one hand we have the spectacle of such as the Associated Press and Newsweek openly adopting opinion as their journalistic motif.  While on the other we see newspapers, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, awash in the kind of political reporting that reduces even the most important policy issues to the banalities of “horse race” journalism.

This latter development has become all the more insufferable in the current nightmarish environment, where every current and proposed law or regulation should be more carefully analyzed for its effect on the economy than for its impact on politicians and political parties.

Coverage of the health care debate has been singularly inadequate for precisely this reason.  For every news and feature story that has delved into the effects, say, of the “public option” or the “employer mandate,” a hundred have dwelt on the chances of legislative passage, or on the political winners and losers.

Comes now the leaked e-mail  messages from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, just days before an important environmental summit in Copenhagen, and the question is whether the MSM, in the wake of it, will finally treat the subject of global warning with the care and objectivity that such a complex subject demands.

Even without so-called cap-and-trade legislation looming on the congressional horizon, the many national and international environmental laws that are now being implemented or considered require that global warming be closely scrutinized for its scientific findings, and for the impact and efficacy of any public policies as may be pursued in consequence.  The unseemly aspects of the CRU correspondence simply adds fuel to what should be a brightly burning subject even without it.

Consider, for instance, the critical linkages that have to be established and explained if “global warming” is to be understood by people generally (as distinguished from “warmists” or “skeptics”), as a subject they should care about.

First, it has to be clear that warming is happening, and that it is man-made, a subject about which there was, in fact, debate even before the CRU debacle.  Then it has to be determined that said warming is of such peril something needs to be done about it.  (Again, the subject of debate.)  Then, of course, it has to be shown that there is something that can be done about it.  And finally, we have to know that what we do won’t have negative consequences (like, for instance, on the economy) that are worse than the effects of the warming itself.

Seen in this way the opinions of climatologists are just one element, and not even the most important one, that needs to be considered and fully examined.  But is that happening in the coverage of this issue by the MSM?  Doesn’t look like it.  Instead, as with their coverage of health care reform, news stories about global warming tend to be either (1) preposterously opinionated, and wrapped in the familiar blather of political correctness, or (2) woefully superficial, a consequence of their horse-race aspects and focus not on substance but on the political sideshow.

Hardly a day goes by without someone, somewhere, lamenting the prospective demise of journalism, by which they mean, even if they don’t say so, what we have come to call the mainstream media – the broadcast networks, big-city papers, the newsweeklies, the wire services.  But as shown in their coverage of global warming and health care reform, today’s MSM appear to be adrift, and operating apart not only from their traditions, but also from what is in their own, and our, best interest.

Cross-posted in Huffington Post, here.

The AP and Joshua Bernard

The decision made by the Associated Press to publish a photograph of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan has been condemned by many, including the slain soldier’s family and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The photo itself is both horrifying and heart wrenching, as it shows Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard clinging to life as he lay in the mud, one leg completely severed and the other badly mangled, the result of a rocket-propelled grenade fired during a Taliban ambush.

Though the photo was taken on Aug. 14, the AP didn’t release it until Sept. 4, after the slain soldier’s burial, and after having shown several photos from the scene to Bernard’s family.

The view from here is that the AP did the right thing.  What, after all, do we imagine?  That when a U.S. soldier dies on foreign soil his passing is like that of a stateside family member, sedated against pain and surrounded by loved ones?

Lance Corporal Bernard paid a terrible price — the ultimate price — in service to his country, and for us not to be able to look his death in the face is not only cowardly and intellectually dishonest, it robs Bernard’s sacrifice of any meaning, as though he just wandered off peacefully somewhere, a quiescent statistic.

To express such an opinion is not to utter a single word either for or against the war in Afghanistan.  That is another issue.  Rather, the point here is that, when it comes to matters of life and death in direct consequence of government policy, we owe it to those in harm’s way, and to ourselves, not to sugar coat or sanitize the brutal results.

In recent months the AP has made some serious mistakes in judgment, most recently in the decision to distribute so-called “investigative news stories” paid for by nonprofit organizations with a political agenda.  But the decision to publish the photo of Joshua Bernard was not a mistake.  It was, instead, exactly right.

With Friends Like These

Signs of institutional meltdown are everywhere apparent.  Wall Street and Detroit are obvious examples, as are the states of New York and California.  But nowhere is the collapse of standards and credibility more alarming than among journalists and their profession.

Evidence of journalism’s implosion is seen not only in the declining readership and viewership of the MSM, and in public opinion polls, but also in the recent antics of journalists themselves and of those grant-giving foundations that support journalism programs.

A lamentably good example of the latter was provided last week by the Knight Foundation — the largest provider of funding for such programs at universities and nonprofit organizations — and by the Associated Press.

In a release dated June 15, the AP announced that it was launching a project “to distribute watchdog and investigative journalism from nonprofit organizations to its 1,500 member newspapers.”  Two days earlier, the Knight Foundation announced a new $15-million program of grants to several investigative news organizations.  Among them are two that the AP plans to include in its distribution, the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica.

These two announcements herald the birth of what would have been unthinkable in better times, the spectacle of an established news organization like AP accepting and distributing handouts from third parties.

Such an arrangement is, and would be, objectionable even if the “investigative news” organizations in question possessed the qualities of balance and objectivity.  But these don’t, and you don’t need to be an investigative reporter to figure that out.

Take, for example, the best funded of them, ProPublica.  From their own website comes this revealing statement about their mission: “Our work,” they say, “focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force.’  We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

What this suggests, of course, is that ProPublica is likely to have little or no interest in some of the worst aspects of public policy in the USA.  Things like the disastrous dependency on government, forged after decades of welfare programs, in America’s inner-city neighborhoods.  Or like the ruinous role played by public employees and their unions on state and municipal finance.  Or the impact on the cost and provision of health care by ambulance-chasing trial lawyers.

Just by their mission statement it’s clear that ProPublica’s heart wouldn’t be in doing these kinds of stories.  But that’s not the only evidence of the organization’s unfitness for the role being given it by the AP.  There’s also the small matter of its founder and largest benefactor.

Billionaire Herbert Sandler and his wife, Marion (they’re always mentioned together because of the role each played in the founding of Golden West Financial), have painted, through their contributions to Democratic and leftist organizations like the Center for American Progress and Acorn, an unmistakable ideological profile, leavened with a fair amount of hypocrisy.

As Jack Shafer of Slate put it, in a piece published shortly after the Sandlers founded ProPublica in 2007: “What do the Sandlers want for their millions?  Perhaps to return us to the days of the partisan press … ProPublica’s Web site vows that its investigations will be conducted in a ‘non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality.’  But philanthropists, especially those who earned the fortune they’re giving away, tend not to distribute their money with a blind eye to the results.  How happy will they be if ProPublica gores their sacred Democratic cows?  Or takes the ‘wrong’ position on their pet projects: health, the environment, and civil liberties?”

Providing an almost comic dimension to the Sandlers’ ambitions is the fact that earlier this year Time magazine named them to their list of the “25 people responsible for the financial crisis,” and "SNL" did a skit in ’08 in which it was suggested that they should be shot.

Looming over the whole of the Knight/AP exercise is the elephant in the room that is the public’s growing lack of trust in the media.  A piece written last month by Melik Kaylan for Forbes.com summarized that distrust as follows:

“The Reagan years also ushered in the distrust of the Eastern-seaboard intellectual elites.  President Reagan understood and exploited the great divide between the heartland and custodians of news, who were chiefly in New York.  The two sides saw two different Americas.  Journalists and the institutions that formed their ideas saw a country composed largely of wronged minorities with fascinating grievances.  Much of the country saw itself as a unified coherent nation with its traditions under siege from insular power blocs who were back-scratching each other all the way up and down the seaboards.  Out of that disconnect grew the success of Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Fox News, the blogosphere and the great decentralizing force of the alternative media."

By an ironic coincidence, on the same day that the AP came out with its announcement, the Gallup organization released the results of a new poll of Americans’ ideological attitudes.  It found that conservatives outnumber liberals by a margin of 2 to 1.  More importantly it revealed that only 5 percent of the people consider themselves "very liberal," a designation that accurately describes the investigative nonprofits the AP and the Knight Foundation have now embraced.

Leave it to them to explain, as the media continue their march toward oblivion, how such a biased and shabby program will improve the public’s trust in the mainstream media or in journalism.