The news media, or The Press, in America seems to have some interesting and different ideas about their responsibility to the public, about truth, and about what freedom of the Press means. Their ideas are often different from my own.
For example, I always find it interesting how the press deals with secrets. In the eyes of the press there appear to be two kinds of secrets:
The interesting difference between the two is that the public has a right to know other peoples secrets but has no right to know the Press' secrets. I think back to the Watergate story during the Nixon administration. According to the Press, the public had a right to know what the Nixon administration and the Committee to Re-Elect the President was doing. And perhaps the Press is right about that. But don't we the public also have a right to know who Deep Throat the famous but anonymous informant was? The Press says no, we don't have a right to know because the right to keep sources secret protects the freedom of the Press. I find this argument unconvincing. After all, if I am to accept the notion that the President doesn't have the right to private conversations with heads of State, the recent reports of conversations between President Clinton and President Yeltsin for example, then why should I accept that I don't have a right to know who leaked the conversation?
The President argues that he needs to be able to discuss things in private or his ability to work for the countries best interests are jeopardized. The Press says they need secret sources or their ability to report the news is jeopardized. Either both are right or both are wrong. I see no way that one side can be right and the other wrong as they are both making the same argument
As a side note, I believe that the President has a right to know who in his employ can not be trusted. Not only does he have that right, I believe that the well being of the country depends on the President having loyal and trustworthy advisors. The Press, by encouraging leaks and protecting leakers, poses a clear danger to the security of the nation. This is irresponsible at best.
The American media also talks loud and often about their need and ability to remain impartial. This does appear to be a good goal. After all, if the media is impartial then people on all sides will feel comfortable believing that their views will get a fair and equitable airing and analysis. The problem is that no one can be completely impartial. Some bias will always tint news reporting. Claiming impartiality creates a problem because it very often means that observers are unaware of what filters and bias has influenced the report they hear, see or read. I think it is best that the Press make their bias clear to their customers.
I am not saying that the Press should be obviously biased. I do believe that they should attempt to report the news without bias. At the same time they should be clear about their own views. Some will claim that the Press does let their opinions known through editorials. To an extent this is true. On the other hand editorials speak to only a few issues. They also only address the bias of the publisher and editors not of individual reporters. I'm not sure how this additional communication should happen. I'm not even sure that it needs to be explicit. What I do think needs to happen is for the Press to admit that they are human, that they have a bias on many issues, and that sometimes these biases and opinions can color their coverage.
Related to the issue of impartiality is the responsibility of the Press to report on both sides of an issue. The Press makes a big show of doing this but often falls short. One newspaper, the East Hampton Star, seems to do a better then average job of this. Though by no means perfect, they are an example of what I think the Press should do but all to often does not. What they will do it quote a statement by a newsmaker. Then they will often look further into what they said and report the facts they have found when those facts contradict the quoted speaker.
Most often the Press relies on opponents to point out flaws or inaccuracies in public statements. While fine in theory this is flawed in practice. For one thing opponents often are not aware, in a timely enough fashion, what they other side is saying. They are also often short of resources where the Press often does have resources. I believe it is incumbent on the Press to undertake independent study of public comments on important issues. In this way they would be taking the side of truth rather then any partisan effort.
It all to often appears that the Press is more interested in creating conflict then in reporting truth. More interested in playing to emotion then for enlightenment. One perfect example of this is the debate over so called "assault weapons." The TV media is found of showing a picture of someone firing one of these rifles at a target, watermelon are popular, followed by a picture of the target exploding. Graphic and forceful this shows how powerful these firearms are. The problem is that these images are false. They show one firearm firing and a bullet from another firearm, usually a Police officers handgun, hitting the target. If the media caught anyone else doing this they would attack with both feet.
The second example, in the same debate, is the failure of the media to investigate the claims of the anti gun forces. For example, the anti gun people are found of saying "these weapons have no legitimate sporting use." The media never questions this most egregious example of the Big Lie technique. An honest reporter could investigate and rapidly find out and report that among the guns targeted as "assault weapons" are target rifles used in virtually every highpower rifle match in the nation. Others on the list are widely used for small game and varmint hunting. But this, and other claims, are never investigated and never reported accurately. One is forced to wonder why.
The media coverage of the "assault weapon" debate is one very clear example of why many in America have lost faith in the media. It is one of the reasons that many conservatives no longer believe the Press to be impartial or even honest.
Copyright Alfred C Thompson II 2007