An international media affair

by Beacon Staff • April 23, 2008

The obstacles facing ethical journalism

Our View:

China, US are poor examples for students,When the 35 Lions covering the Beijing Summer Olympics reach China they will probably witness firsthand the constraints faced by members of the Chinese media, anchored in part by the continuing protests surrounding the games.

One of the grievances aired by many protesters is that the Chinese government is notorious for its atrocious treatment of the media. From state arrest of journalists and bloggers for unfavorable coverage to the curious lack of news coverage questioning their Communist rule, it is clear that reporting the news in China is a difficult and dangerous occupation.

The United States has the opposite problem: an open media which squanders its freedom by producing superficial news, and which is willingly complicit in pro-government manipulation. There is no need to jail journalists when they too often do Big Brother's work and no need to censor the truth when the media has no interest in telling it anyway.

Two recent events have made this irony clear: the most recent Democratic debate and a comprehensive New York Times article which revealed that many military analysts on cable news are puppets of the Pentagon, an obvious conflict of interest. Both stories speak to the frivolity and untrustworthiness of the U.S. media-in these cases, television news-that should make us wonder if our country's "free society" can be so easily lauded.

The Democratic debate in Philadelphia on April 16 was a clear display of the priorities of many in the media. Aired on ABC, it was moderated by Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos-two respected television news figures-who focused their questions largely on all the campaign's biggest "gates:" Bosnia-gate, Reverend Wright-gate and bitter-gate.

The moderators were roundly criticized after the gossipy QA, and rightly so. It reflected one of the worst tendencies of political reporting, particularly during a campaign: the tendency not to focus on issues of actual concern to voters, but on idiotic non-stories that are of interest only to well-paid Beltway pundits.

Non-substantive coverage is one thing; it is worse when ostensibly serious reporting is downright manipulative. What China accomplishes by exercising control over news outlets, cable news in the US hands to its government without protest. This is what the New York Times discovered in its multi-page article, "Behind TV analysts, Pentagon's hidden hand," published last Sunday.

The piece noted that many military analysts brought on cable news programs since the start of the Iraq War have been far from independent sources. Often they have willingly repeated administration talking points, or have held financial stake in contractors they have been brought on to discuss, rarely disclosed to viewers.

It goes without saying that many journalists in this country are principled and hard-working. Also, problems like the ones discussed here extend into print and radio, and don't merely afflict television.

But at a school with a strong journalism program like Emerson-both in print and broadcast-what are students to make of stories like these? Hopefully, the lesson taken is one where our students learn what never to do, no matter what country they decide to report from.