Friday, December 08, 2006

Truckin' along

I was having a discussion with another parent at a boy scout campout about the war in Iraq and generally all things foreign policy, and the discussion fell to a particular point of fact and where those facts were coming from.  When I asked where he got his ideas from on the point, he declared that he read it in the paper (or saw it on the TV news, I forget exactly).  At this stage I pointed out that his error was listening to the news. 

He ridiculed me that I was disputing his point because he read the news and, apparently, I did not.  Ordinarily you would think that he’d have me on this point, but I begged to differ.  It’s not that I don’t read the news, it’s just that the TV news and the local paper is most definitely NOT the only source of information I get. 

Today’s traditional media formulates it’s news gathering around a central theme and that theme is money.  Shocking, you say.  How can this be so, you ask.  Typically people have no problem criticizing the actions of the President as motivated by oil or economic advantage, or criticizing big industry for the same reasons.  It’s all about money.  Which is true, it’s how our society works.  Money, or just compensation for effort, is the pillar of capitalism and has allowed our society to progress at a faster rate than any other in history and allowed us to live in comfort no known in the history of the world.

However, you can’t really insulate any part of industry from that, unless you get a tight group of high minded people working for a non-profit, which most media outlets are not.

Part of the underlying problem with news today is that it is supported by multinational conglomerates who only really have to answer to stockholders and not to you and me, the consumer of that product.  Actually, that’s not totally true, as when the value of their news gathering diminishes (i.e. people start figuring out that the news they see is deficient in some way) they’ll stop consuming the product and the media company will lose money.

But until that happens, news organizations are under almost no compulsion to give us all the information we need to be adequately informed on any given topic.  It seems that, short of outright libel that a judge could identify and prosecute, they’re not under any obligation to tell the truth either.

      In Baghdad, the local AP team has been using a man who calls himself Police Captain Jamil Hussein for more than a year. AP claims he works in the Yarmouk police station on the west side of Baghdad - and he's been a source for several stories on killings of Sunni civilians over the past two years. He was AP's main source for a Thanksgiving-week report that four mosques had been attacked and burned and/or blown up, with six Sunni worshippers burned alive.

      But the Iraqi government and the U.S. Army have long warned the AP about its use of "spokesmen" who don't exist. Indeed this time it appears that there is no such officer in the Iraqi police force in Baghdad. More, they could find no evidence of such an attack (though they did see that one mosque had been hit with some gasoline and had some smoke and scorching damage in the entryway).

      Did the AP retract or reinvestigate? Nah. Instead, in a follow-up story a few days later, it simply noted the old (2005) news about efforts to plant Coalition press releases in the Iraqi media, accused the Iraqis of censorship and claimed that it had found three more (anonymous, naturally) witnesses. In effect, AP said that, no matter what the Iraqi police headquarters said, Hussein is one of its spokesmen after all.

This is certainly not the only case of media outlets modifying or falsifying information meant for the general public.  There seems to be no true repercussions for agencies like this short of consumer dissatisfaction and reaction.   But that won’t happen until people generally understand that what they get from mass media isn’t unbiased journalism all the time, and that we as a nation of people need to digest the news we get with a grain of salt and a discerning eye.

Because the paper and TV media just keeps on truckin’ as long as they’re making money, and the most surefire way to make money in the news business is not to sell the truth, but to sell an over-glamorized distortion of the truth designed to shock us into staring at the boob tube.

Certainly there are many journalists working for the AP and the NY Times and Reuters that have integrity and desire to tell the truth as best as they can, but they all aren’t, as well as their editors.  Think about what you’re reading, and make sure that you are getting your news and commentary from more than one source.

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