FREEDOM OF THE PRESS?
By Roland Watson
All of this brings into question the ideal of the freedom of the press. This ideal is regarded as sacrosanct, and insofar as the media defend us from unethical individuals and institutions, including governments and corporations, they themselves must be defended. But the media, at least in the West, are now mature. They are no longer newly free, and hence vigorous and disciplined. Modern media, with their long freedom from autocratic governmental control, have become corrupt and depraved. They are in love with themselves and their power. They rarely exercise self-discipline. And through all of this they are abusing their freedom. In modern society freedom of the press is a charade, a false flag: it is completely self-serving. Indeed, propaganda, any propaganda, is a crime, and freedom of the press is no defense against it.
Because of this - this evolution and this behavior - it is up to us, through activism, to get the media to curb their excesses. However, to the greatest extent possible we should avoid censorship. There should not be restrictions on news coverage (other than on the broadcasting of inappropriate images), not even on the presentation of opinion as news. Our underlying goal is to increase education, particularly about form, and thereby enable and encourage discrimination, so that people understand that such news is really only opinion, when it is presented. Similarly, the same argument exists with entertainment. Only a few limits are appropriate, and these for the most part already exist, i.e., the media should not show hard-core pornography, or dead, mutilated bodies, at least at a time or in a way that children can view it. As to second tier, but still very objectionable programming, such as the glamorization of violence and war, this also is extremely inappropriate, particularly for children, but it should not be prohibited. The goal is to achieve consumer-directed offerings (although the media argue that this is what we have now), which take us away from, and clearly educate us about, negative forms. The worst films and television programs should not be outlawed; they should be unwatched.
As to other tactics, the media, with their increased sense of self-importance, have brought about the death of privacy. They engage in the surveillance of anyone with whom they are interested, and their interest alone is sufficient justification for this. In the courts, police must prove a compelling state interest - the probable commission of a crime - to justify surveillance. The media do it as a matter of course, even as a speculative lark, simply to see if something interesting, something "newsworthy," will turn up.
And no one is immune to this. It is not only Princess Diana who is stalked. It has been reported that the vast majority of internet websites that are targeted at children accumulate personal information about them and their families. And, while U.S. law now forbids websites to collect such information from children under the age of thirteen, the practice remains commonplace with teenagers.
Where money is concerned, the media have no shame.
(This also points out an inherent contradiction in the internet. Through enabling person-to-person communication, and self-publication, it is a check on the censorship and other ills of centralized mass media. But the internet is a mass medium itself, and technologically-based, hence it is subject to the same types of abuse.)
Lastly, the media are not above creating a little volatility to boost sales. Journalists regularly falsely report on conflicts, by presenting rumor as fact (or even outright lies). And through this they fuel anger and tensions, yielding further conflicts, and new stories on which to report.
Indeed, it is not even necessary to lie. In many cases the sheer presence of the media promotes conflict. For instance, without the media to offer free worldwide publicity, there would be far less terrorism. And, the same effect can be seen with conventional warfare as well, as the following quote, about the Vietnam War, demonstrates:
"There were officers and a lot of seemingly naive troops who believed that if it were not for us [war journalists], there would be no war now."
- Michael Herr, Dispatches
The media do have a responsibility to cover war and terrorism, and this is most profound in the investigation of their underlying causes, and of any atrocities that are committed, by any side. But the media also have a responsibility to be skeptical. Presenting the claims, and most importantly the images, of any party in a conflict, without an independent verification that they are what they are said to be, is completely irresponsible. For example, in the conflict with Iraq [the first Gulf War], the media regularly broadcast images of bloody people in hospitals, particularly bloody children, without questioning if their wounds had actually been caused by Western bombs. (This occurred frequently in BBC coverage.) But such a cause may, or may not, have been the case. Saddam Hussein is [now was] easily calculating enough to create a victim for the cameras, knowing full well that such a powerful image will always get airtime, and a lot of it. Such cynical manipulation is in fact common, and should always be considered a possibility in conflict situations. (As another example of this type of manipulation, in India many children have been mutilated to make them more pitiful beggars, to attract more alms.)
In addition, the media must be alert to the unintended consequences of their coverage. For instance, should the media have broadcast from Serbia during the Kosovo conflict, particularly the aftermath of NATO bombing? As another example, would it have been appropriate in World War II to broadcast, from the ground, the effects of Allied Forces bombing on German cities?
While such coverage does have positive effects (for one, it helps reveal the environmental damage caused by the bombs), it can also cause us to feel sympathy for aggressors and murderers. Further, the people of Serbia, and of Nazi Germany, were culpable. They allowed their dictators to stay in power. And they, or their brothers or fathers, committed atrocities as part of the military or the police, in Kosovo (and Bosnia) killing thousands of men, raping thousands of women, and burning hundreds if not thousands of villages.
All of this raises the issue of media ethics. And, regarding hearsay, it should always be identified as such. It should never be presented as fact. This should be the editorial policy of all media.
But to accomplish this, media editors must recognize the basic constraint of writers and producers, which is that they are allotted only so many inches of column space, or seconds of airtime, to fill. Furthermore, their main goal is to capture their story, including presenting its background, themes and angles, and present situation, and to do this entertainingly. In addition to this, they have to make any ethical qualifications that are appropriate. But under this constraint the last item is regularly left out, which means the article or program is already biased, if not completely flawed. And this is without even considering the likely addition of the writer or producer's own perspective or agenda. (As a positive example of media behavior regarding this issue, CNN's coverage of the Kosovo conflict regularly included such an ethical qualification. Also, it is interesting to note that while Kosovo was in progress, Iraq was ignored.)
The deeper problem is that the real goal of the media is to make money. It is not solely to report the news, but to report it is such a way that it makes money, i.e., so that it is entertaining and attracts viewers and hence advertisers. But such a quest for profit is usually at odds with ethics, so we get bias, systemic bias, as a matter of course.
© Roland Watson 2016