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 Truth and the Media

The Media and Truth

In order to create false impressions, media uses numerous methods deliberately deceiving their audiences by sensationalising news in order to compete for higher ratings. Plain news events can be predictable, flat and boring and expensive, so tabloid and infotainment resort to spicing up the news with spectacular footage, beat-up stories and tacky, sleazy and cheap dramatic conflict. As Brian tells Marty, three things television needs is “good vision, good vision, and good vision” When Mike warns Brian “don’t underestimate our audience”, Brian’s quick retort is a cynical I’ve built my whole career on it”.

The role of the media:

“A newspaper is lumber made malleable.  It is ink made into words and pictures. It is conceived, born, grows up and dies of old age in a day”.  Jim Bishop, Am. Columnist

“Our democracy and its press will rise and fall together” Joseph Pulitzer

The media is the life blood of a vibrant democracy

Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted

The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is awarded annually to a journalist whose work has "penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth that exposes establishment propaganda, or 'official drivel'.

"The old art of the journalist is just as mystical as ever. To capture the imagination of a reader – to inform, to explain, to amuse and amaze – is still, by and large, an art more than it is a science. And it is in this art that the reasons to have an optimistic outlook for newspapers is founded. Sharing stories is the most human of habits and the long form of journalism is one of the most pure, most enduring examples of that".   Malcolm Turnbull.

We know what Media should strive for as the Australian Press Council’s (APC) own "Statement of Principles", summarises:

  • Don’t publish what you know is (or could be) false; take steps to check the accuracy of your report.
  • Make amends when you do publish something false
  • Respect privacy and sensibilities of individuals, except in cases of "obvious or significant public interest".
  • Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.
  • Don’t publish news obtained dishonestly or unfairly, and don’t breach confidences.
  • Clearly distinguish fact and opinion.
  • Don’t suppress or distort relevant facts.
  • Make headlines and captions reflect the tenor of an article.
  • Advise readers of potential conflicts of interest.
  • No gratuitous emphasis on race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin etc, except where public interest overrides.
  • Ensure fairness and balance where people are singled out for criticism.

Failing that, provide reasonable and prompt opportunity for a balancing response.

The power of the media to manipulate the news by suppressing, banning, delaying or doctoring programs is now evident following the War on Iraq. Concentrated media ownership can now ensure that only those stories favourable to your ideology are aired to the masses. Murdoch’s control of Fox networks skewed the news stories to sanitise the war and bolster support for President Bush.  University studies have concluded that the longer people watch Fox News, the less informed they become.

Traditionally news media were classified into three broad categories: Broadsheets (quality - in depth analysis and opinion), Tabloids (sensationalism)  and Throw-aways  (rags).

 Christian Kerr writes that  The best opinion journalism has a clarity and readability that far surpasses most academic papers or diplomatic telegrams. But opinion journalism also has its characteristic vices”.

An editor of The Economist in the 1950s once advised his journalists to 'simplify, then exaggerate'. This formula is almost second nature for newspaper columnists.

Purpose of Tabloids

To Entertain

Tabloids like the Tele exist for one reason – to attract the attention of readers. To suggest the paper's editors spend their days agonising over public interest, and the potential negative impact of a story on a politician, is to misunderstand the role of a tabloid editor. Larry Lamb, former editor of the London Sun, sums up the job description thus: "One must ... aim to stimulate, educate, coax, coerce, cajole – shock when necessary – but, above, all to entertain. No newspaper, and no newspaperman, should ever be ashamed to entertain. " From Crikey.com 06/09/05

This is how it summarised its Media Award for 2006:

David Penberthy’s showmanlike talent for staging a hugely entertaining tabloid performance every morning, six days a week. The Daily Telegraph is livelier than it has been for years, replete with all the tricks of the tabloid trade that are the great hallmarks of its populist News Corp stablemates in London and New York. We are not talking heavy or serious editorial content here. This is journalism-as-entertainment: a “holy sh-t” big black front page splash, plenty of powerful-figures-rort-the-system inside stories, lots of really cheeky headlines, several pages of juicy celebrity gossip, columnists who (in print) share their readers' values, dollops of jingoism, pathos, pets and moral indignation, all the news in bite-sized mouthfuls, and a sports section with guts. It may not be for the purists, and it inevitably involves some excessive behaviour and some bad calls (eg. those mythical Indian ANZ call centres) but under David Penberthy’s frenetic guiding hand The Daily Telegraph meets the primary consideration for any tabloid editor: it is almost never dull.

To Alarm

The purpose of tabloids is to maintain a perpetual state of false alarm in order to persuade the working class to vote for the ruling class”.

US journalist Janet Malcolm put her finger on what journalism is really about when she claimed in her book, The Journalist and the Murder, that every journalist knows that what he does is "morally indefensible" and that in his heart he's a sort of "confidence trickster" who lulls people into a false sense of security and then betrays them mercilessly.

Don't think of an Elephant, in which George Lakoff, a linguistics professor, theorises that voters make decisions based not on specific party policies but on larger metaphors or "frames".

"Apathy and Anger, Our Modern Australian Democracy"

Faulkner's speech is titled "Apathy and Anger, Our Modern Australian Democracy", and it begins like this: "In Australia today there is a dangerous indifference to politics accompanied by a simmering resentment of politicians. Citizens who haven't enough interest in the democratic process to stay even vaguely informed of the issues have only one profound political conviction - that politicians can't be trusted. Politicians show reciprocal cynicism in an electoral climate where a lie about mortgage rates has more impact than the truth about lies. Our democracy is drowning in distrust."

Of the media he says: "Today's media is far more immediate. Rapid turnover leads to the constant search for the latest scoop, however flimsy the connection to the public interest. News comes packaged, enhanced with manipulative sound and image. Stories that don't suit simplistic illustrations are dropped. Stories about scandals boost circulation and take priority over complex discussions on policy. As British journalist and commentator Malcolm Muggeridge once said, 'Who sleeps with whom is intrinsically more interesting than who votes for whom."'

And he says of the body politic: "We need more than a press release and a campaign commercial to cure the powerful, potent, destructive mix of apathy and anger in our community.  (February 2006 SMH)

Al Gore’s:  Assault on Reason

Al Gore in a new book called Assault on Reason  delves into the forces shaping the American polity today, focusing on the corruption of the marketplace of ideas by the power of television. It is this kind of one-way mass communication, whose ownership is always concentrated by the State in a few favoured hands, that has the strongest ability to overwhelm citizens' ability both to obtain the fullest range of information and to reason its meaning.

For Gore, this has upended the revolutionary medium associated with the founding of American democracy: the print press and its pamphleteers, who vigorously and openly engaged in debate over the fate of their republic.

The wilful, exploitative linking of the attacks of September 11 to Saddam in this context becomes a springboard into the deepest recesses of fear, with these fears overwhelming our ability to reason collectively together. "If the consent of the governed is extorted through the manipulation of mass fears," Gore writes, "or embezzled with claims of divine guidance, democracy is impoverished."

Gore's political theorems are not merely intellectual, but bionic. He bores deeply into how the brain absorbs televised images, in an extended discussion of the amygdala in the cerebrum, and in how the "bombardment" by television of fear can disrupt the "immune system" that should enable American citizens to deal responsibly with the threats the country really is facing.

Television's wasteland is vast. Decrying "a new pattern of serial obsessions", Gore cites O.J.Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and, of course, Paris. It's true: every day we focus on the atrocity that is Paris Hilton is a good day for al-Qaeda. In Australia we could add Big Brother.

The Media and Democracy

Democratic censorship can be even more effective than totalitarianism. The old Russian Communists, pre 1985, were impressed by the uniformity of American News Reports and TV programs. Most democracies profess “open or transparent” government but surreptitiously restrict information. More and more laws criminalising the disclosure of information have been passed in all free countries, hiding behind Official Secrets Acts or threats to National Security, evidenced in the banning of reports on trials, or journalists forced to surrender film and source material to police for prosecution.

Australia has one of the world’s most monopolised media. Murdoch owns most of the press outlets, Packer the magazines and a national TV network. While totalitarian countries are renown for censorship and bias, the concentration of media ownership has created a uniformity of news and programming in most democratic powers as well. Hard hitting rigorous investigative journalism is the exception rather than the rule, as journalists consider the dilemma of how to pursue their careers with integrity while serving concentrated powerful media moguls.

The so-called independent stations such as the BBC in England, the CBC in Canada and the ABC and SBS in Australia tend to be a bit more forthright in exploring, investigating and disclosing the real stories that affect our lives. However they too can be subject to pressure through funding cuts by desperate governments.

Television’s influence on how we see ourselves and the world has been profound. As Marshall McLuhan demonstrated it is a “Cool” medium rather than an engaging one, it appeals to the affective domain, the visceral and emotive rather than the cerebral, cognitive or rational aspects of its audience. Telegenic faces and mindless entertainment take precedence over reality and thought provoking substance. After a tiring day people prefer to flop down in front of television to relax and vegetate; not to be confronted with challenging, thought provoking or demanding issues.

Much of the news we get comes to us artfully pre-packaged.”  Much of what we consider news is actually the product of Media Management developed by highly skilled Public Relations Units of large corporations, government Ministers or agencies. Today PR officers out number reporters 3:1.  There are two sides of this issue; good policies need to be sold to the public, but bad news should not be buried or glossed over by the “dark arts” of spin.  As Matthew Knott put it:

At its worst, spin distorts the truth, undermines democracy and debases our language.

Politicians are aware that “shoe leather” investigative reporting stories is hard work and expensive. Ostensibly to lighten the burden, but pragmatically to get positive spin, governments spend heavily on news management casting their policies and actions in a favourable light. Bob Carr’s cabinet had 19 ministers and 29 press secretaries (hand picked former experienced journalists) and he made himself readily available for early morning flash TV grabs and offered easy telephone access to selective “cherry-picked” radio and press personalities. All governments spend an obscene amount of money on media management, monitoring of news and public advertising that should be spent on teachers and nurses – public infrastructure instead of cynical exercises to influence and manipulate the media and distort public opinion. This governmental avalanche of disinformation simply smothers the truth and doesn’t give alternative views a chance to be aired.

Carl Bernstein on Politics and the Press

These are excerpts from a book written by Carl Bernstein on Hillary Clinton. Bernstein and Woodward were the reporters who exposed the Watergate conspiracy that brought about the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon in 1973.

But Senator Clinton's innate distrust, he continues, is not confined to the right-wing press. In fact, she "hates the press". He points to a speech she gave to a Rotary club audience in 1977, in which she said: "One of our problems is trying to control a press that is far out of line because of Watergate." In the book he expands, writing that she regarded the media as "out of control, hell-bent on personal destruction and manufactured controversy - while ignoring serious issues".

Those sentiments are curiously reminiscent of a speech Bernstein, himself a long-time critic of falling standards in journalism, gave in 1998 to American broadcast news directors, in which he said: "The reality is that the media are probably the most powerful of all our institutions today, and they, or rather we [journalists], too often are squandering our power and ignoring our obligations." In the light of that comment, what did he make of Tony Blair's description of the British news media as a "feral beast"?

While he is aware of Blair's speech, Bernstein, who has attacked the decision to invade Iraq, had not heard the phrase "feral beast". He chuckles: "That's the phrase he used, feral beast? I gotta tell you, presidents and prime ministers who lie ... I don't know what sort of beast they are, but [Iraq] was certainly a feral enterprise."

How would he characterise the Bush Administration's attitude to the press, when compared with other presidents? He does not hesitate. "They're contemptuous, arrogant and totally [uninterested] in the truth. They regard the press as an impediment. Much worse even than the Nixon people and certainly the Clinton people.

"But it's more than the press. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice have no interest in the truth. They believe that truthful information, when they don't want people to know what they are doing, is treasonous. These people have been mendacious and their dishonesty has been a central component of the most disastrous presidency, certainly in our modern history and probably in our entire history."    From The Interview – by James Silver – Spectrum July 7-8 2007.

Book Review on Flat Earth News

Nick Davies writes that “Untruths pass into common currency, not because journalists are liars, but because they simply don’t know whether what they are writing is true and the do not have the time to find out.”

Davies sees this as the logic of commerce – cut costs, increase production.  Research indicates that through staff cuts, reporters are today  filling three times as much space as 20 years ago.  No wonder many stories today consist of wholly of unchecked, unchallenged and unquestioned copy from PR sources of governments or corporations.  These stories are cheap, safe, commercially impactful and quick to produce.  Repackaging others news stories is coined as “churnalism”  leaving the news cycle vulnerable to manipulation by PR media managers.    Excerpted from Spectrum March 1 2008

THE CRISIS OF TRUTH TELLING IN OUR SOCIETY

Father Timothy Radcliffe OP

The media are the typical eighteenth century fruit of the Enlightenment pursuit of truth, unmasking hypocrisy and denouncing failure. To a large extent it is through their eyes that we see each other today.

Thanks be to God we have a media which is free. Thanks be to God for Watergate. The media exposure of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the failure of the authorities to deal with it responsibly was profoundly painful and humiliating. But thanks be to God that the media did show up our failings, otherwise the Church would never have been forced to confront its sin. Thanks be to God for the media’s revelation of the appalling abuse of Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib prison. Without the media’s revelations, then it could never be stopped. But if denunciation and accusation become the main way in which human beings view each other, then we shall indeed sucked into untruthfulness. Sometimes we must accuse, but we cannot do that until we have first seen the goodness of the other person. It is good people who do bad things.     ……….

The climate of mistrust and suspicion, the constant bombardment of the media with its culture of accusation, the ethos of consumerism, all press upon us, and deform our perceptions. We need oases of leisure and silence and gratitude where we can, literally, come to our senses.    excerpted from: The 19th Eric Symes Abbott Memorial Lecture 2004

Quotes on the Media

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”— Napoleon, 1804

“There is much to be said In favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.” — Oscar Wilde, 1891

“If an editor can only make people angry enough, they will write half his newspaper for him for nothing.” — G. K. Chesterton, 1905

“Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” — G K. Chesterton, 1914

 “People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” — A. J. Liebling, New Yorkër 1956

“I read the newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction.” — UK politician Aneurin Bevan, 1960

“Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.” — Norman Mailer, 1964

 “If you don’t read the newspapers you are uninformed – if you do read them, you are misinformed.”

The Historical Bias of Newspapers

Study the following announcements that appeared in the Moniteur of France from March 9 – 22, 1815 on Napoleon’s march from Elba to Paris.

March 9:     

The Monster has escaped from his place of Banishment.

March 10:   

The   Corsican ogre has landed at Cape Juan.

March 11:   

The Tiger has shown himself at Gap.

 The troops are advancing on all sides to arrest his progress. He will conclude his miserable adventure by becoming a wanderer among the mountains.

March12:    

The  Monster has actually advanced as far as Grenoble

March 13:   

The Tyrant is now at Lyon.

 Fear and terror seized all at his appearance.

March 18:

Usurper has ventured to approach to within 60 hours march of the capital

March 19:   

Bonaparte is advancing by forced marches

 It is impossible he can reach Paris.”

March 20: 

Napoleon will arrive under the walls of Paris tomorrow.

March 21: 

The Emperor Napoleon is at Fontainbleau.”

March 22: 

His Majesty the Emperor makes public entry

Yesterday evening His Majesty the Emperor made his public entry and arrived at the Tuilleries. Nothing can exceed the universal joy.”


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