Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Towards a better press

Steve Duin, The Oregonian's metro columnist, had an excellent review today about "The Race Beat" by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. It's the story of how journalists covered the civil rights movement, and it sounds like a must read. I wanted to link to Duin's column but I can't seem to locate it on The Oregonian's clunky and outdated web site.

So here's a bit of the summary from the publisher:
Drawing on private correspondence, notes from secret meetings, unpublished articles, and interviews, veteran journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff go behind the headlines and datelines to show how a dedicated cadre of newsmen—first black reporters, then liberal southern editors, then reporters and photographers from the national press and the broadcast media—revealed to a nation its most shameful shortcomings and propelled its citizens to act.

We watch the black press move bravely into the front row of the confrontation, only to be attacked and kept away from the action. Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision striking down school segregation and the South’s mobilization against it, we see a growing number of white reporters venture South to cover the Emmett Till murder trial, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the integration of the University of Alabama.

We witness some southern editors joining the call for massive resistance and working with segregationist organizations to thwart compliance. But we also see a handful of other southern editors write forcefully and daringly for obedience to federal mandates, signaling to the nation that moderate forces were prepared to push the region into the mainstream.
Duin's main point in his column was that, amidst growing anxiety and even gloom in newsrooms, reporters and editors have made a difference when they choose to report the correct side of a story. Most Americans were unaware of the pathological levels of violence to which African-Americans were subjected.

We're not in exactly the same situation today, but there are some parallels. The U.S. media has done a poor job in regards to the Iraq war and in covering politics in general. When conservative talking points are printed or aired unexamined, the media acts as a propaganda conduit. Sometimes this is intentional (Fox News) and sometimes it's not so readily intentional (most cable outlets and newspapers.)

Substituting balance for objectivity is a real problem, especially when it comes to official White House pronouncements. It's an objective fact that the Iraq war policy is a disastrous failure, with severe consequences for folks serving in the military and the cititizens of Iraq. But if Tony Snow trots out and claims one thing or another, the media tends to be quite deferential overall, with a few reporters like David Gregory of NBC mounting the occasional challenge.

This doesn't mean hectoring public officials just for the sake of it, either, and it doesn't mean taking right wing talking points and using them to attack Democratic public officials, which is another favorite game the press likes to play. ("You wanted balance, so look at this! The governor had a fundraiser and some lunatic filed a PDC complaint! See! They're all crooks!) That's just as bad, and it further erodes public trust in journalists.

If journalism is the first draft of history, then historical context and assigning some weight to the meaning of various alleged transgressions by public officials must be attempted, otherwise we're just left with Blue Dress equals Watergate or Obama Front Yard equals Jack Abramoff. Or most ominously, War equals Peace.

Realizing that regular citizens cannot possibly sort through every competing claim in politics is not the same as calling the public stupid. The American citizenry is actually quite capable of making good decisions, if they are given good information. Had the media presented objective facts about Iraq in 2002 and early 2003, rather than allowing itself to be used, we might have avoided the current debacle. At the very least public pressure might have forced the Bush administration to negotiate with our European allies over how best to proceed.

So in 2007, it's time for the U.S. media to stop pretending that the war in Iraq is anything but a disaster, and to stop covering talking points as if they are meaningful. Yes, Democrats will make mistakes, and yes, there will be vigorous debates in our ranks. It's healthy to expose the former and encourage the latter.

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