Sunday, July 11, 2010

Can We Force Journalists to Tell the Truth?

Journalism has taken some big hits over the past two or three decades. Especially in the United States, factual reportage has been horribly degraded by the arrival of clowns like Geraldo, O'Reilly and most of the rest of the crew at Fox News. Most of these lowlifes defend themselves be crawling under the cloak of what they like to call "advocacy journalism."

There is plenty of room for advocacy across the political spectrum but in journalism it can be a lot like hosting an open bar at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

You're probably familiar with the line that goes "you're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts." Too often in advocacy journalism facts are discarded for a wilfully fictitious narrative that's presented to the audience as fact. What could be the purpose of this but to mislead the public and distort their view of reality?

Some years ago I watched a chilling interview with a top Republican communications strategist. This seemingly nice enough fellow described a technique we all saw played out when John Kerry was "swiftboated" so that his combat record in Vietnam eclipsed George w. Bush's shameless draft dodge into the decidedly non-combat Texas Air National Guard.

The record of the American media during the runup to and the first couple of years of the Iraq war was a near-complete disgrace. They displayed a gullibility akin to collaboration, unquestioningly feeding the Bush administration's obvious lies to a traumatized American public. It was a confidence job, a hustle of proportions not seen since Germany in the 30's. Only one key American media outlet, McClatchey Newspapers, (formerly Knight Ridder), stepped back, scrutinized their government's claims and arguments and pronounced them untrue or at least unreliable. McClatchey's record stands as a powerful indictment of everyone else - print, television and radio. Among the biggest liars was FOX which had something like two-thirds of its audience believing America had found Saddam's weapons of mass destruction two years after the White House had to admit it goofed.

Today, America's (and, to some extent, Canada's) corporatist media are powerfully engaged in the war against the global warming science movement. The darlings of the denialist community, the corporatist media effectively collaborate with the denialists by often presenting them as on an equal footing with the climatologists despite the lack of any compelling research refuting the theory of global warming. Second, even third-rate hacks are treated as credible authorities which, boiled down, is really just facilitating lies and perpetuating falsehood.

It is a process of "growing" a lie. It begins with alternative media, talk radio for example, where a lie is birthed in the form of speculation or opinion. Mere gossip is entirely suitable. Once it has spread widely enough through the advocacy media, it's picked up by cable outlets like Fox where it is initially presented as "so and so says this" - opinion - until it's said often enough that it is grown from rumour into supposed fact. Once it gathers enough momentum with the spinmeisters at FOX et al, eventually it reaches the mainstream media who run it simply to be seen to have missed the story. And once it's printed in The New York Times, it is fact at least to an overwhelming segment of the voting public.

It's a carefully calibrated technique that targets the public to render them insensible. It's a powerful act of aggression that preys on the public by manipulating their fears and anger and frustration. It's a despicable process practised by vermin like Murdoch and they do it because no one - NO ONE - truly calls them on it at least no one sufficiently powerful.

There are a few web sites like Media Matters (, The Center for Public Inegrity ( and the Center for Media and Democracy that operates PR Watch ( and Source Watch ( that are fighting back to peel away the layers of deception that permeate America's media. If you're not familiar with these organizations you should take the time to check them out. While they're decidedly progressive, they show that when the Right plays with facts it's invariably because they don't want the public armed with the truth. After all, what do oligarchs fear most but the public?

Maybe it's time we had an effective accreditation service governing journalists. Accredited, legitimate journalists would be required to stick to facts. Wilfully spreading falsehoods would be grounds for forfeiture of accreditation. That doesn't mean a journo can't work for the Right or the Left or any group in between. It simply means that lying in order to manipulate the public won't be tolerated. If you know or ought to know the truth but peddle something else as fact instead, you lose your accreditation. You're no longer a journalist, you're something else.

News organizations would be encouraged to post a reporter's accreditation in order to assure their customer/audience of that journalist's integrity and reliability. Better yet, truly credible news organizations would have the necessary incentive to uphold the reputation of their journalists against the inevitable attacks of Murdoch's minions and their ilk.

We're facing a century of enormous challenges and if, as societies, we're to meet those challenges we cannot tolerate a manipulated, deceived and unaware public. We simply can't afford to let this rot stand unchallenged. Having said that, I fear we're a long way off from realizing the threat we face from what passes for modern journalism.

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