Monday, July 13, 1998

Week of 07/13/1998

OOPS! I’m Sorry! Did I destroy your life?
How Media Recklessness Destroys Journalism
- by David Matthews 2

Imagine, if you will, being accused of some of the most horrific crimes imaginable. The press plasters your name and face all over the land. Coworkers stare. Your boss wants you to quietly resign from your job. Your neighbors want you to move out. Everyone wants you dead.

One little problem - you didn’t do what you were accused of!

Truth be told, you’re an upstanding individual who would blanche at the thought of doing something as horrific as the crimes you’re accused of. But that doesn’t matter now. Public opinion has branded you a criminal.

Now suppose that the finger-pointer was the media. What does the media say after they have wrongly destroyed your life?

Oops! Was that your life we just destroyed? Oh, so sorry. Nothing personal, huh? After all, we’re just doing our jobs.

There is a standing myth that anything said on television or the newspapers or the Internet is God’s honest truth. Journalists are expected to be these perfect observers of the world, bound by some divine pact that what they report is supposed to be completely accurate, truthful, and unbiased. I suppose that would be so, if journalists were all robots.

Unfortunately, the medium journalists operate in is largely driven by factors that do not include accuracy or honesty. Rather, journalists work for publishers and production companies, who are driven in the quest for ratings and market share. They live for instant gratification, and thrive on headlines. Sometimes, those factors conflict with concepts like honesty and accuracy.

Case in point is the Cable News Network. CNN has spent eight months investigating a story worthy of its new joint venture with Time Magazine called CNN Newsstand. The story was that the US military used nerve gas to execute those members of the military who deserted during the Vietnam War. Eight months of research, brought together by both CNN and Time, and narrated by veteran reporter Peter Arnett. The scandal, dubbed Operation Tailwind, was the premier story for CNN Newsstand and made headlines around the world.

Problem was, it didn’t happen.

The story turned out to be a whole string of speculations and unsubstantiated reports. CNN even had to hire outside experts to examine the information to check the verification of the story after serious complaints from the US Department of Defense. They too found that the story had very little substantive proof to back up their claims that the military would execute deserters with nerve gas.

The story soon became the scandal that gave CNN a bloody nose. Three producers were fired, and one resigned. Arnett had to prove to the CNN executives that his only contribution to the story was lending his voice to narrate the segments. No doubt if he was any more involved he would have also joined the producers in the unemployment line.

But worse yet, CNN had to do the most absolutely disgraceful thing they ever did in their twenty-plus years of operation - they had to issue a retraction. Oh, the horrors of it all!

The CNN Tailwind scandal was just the tip of the iceberg in a series of inquiries into journalistic integrity as suddenly reporters and even columnists realized that their bosses were looking over every article published, verifying every story, making sure every "T" is dotted and every "I" is crossed.. and terminating those whom they felt didn’t pass the test. (And if you weren’t paying attention, you would have missed the mistake I intentionally made.)

Meanwhile, self-styled reporters such as Internet journalist Matt Drudge are gaining popularity by reporting on Washington figures in the same manner as Hollywood gossip columnists. Drudge’s success online has turned him into a media curiosity, earning him his own show on Rupert Murdock’s Fox News Network. His trademarked fedora and super-serious demeanor cultivate images of the way news used to be reported in the forties and fifties. I almost expect him to start off his news with "Good evening Mister and Missus America and all the ships at sea." Drudge considers himself to be the next Walter Winchell, although after watching his show on Fox News, he would be a lot closer in comparison to Geraldo Rivera.

What is lacking, however, in the discussion of media events is the concept of consequences. Journalistic objectivity often theory often takes a back seat to media reality, as the quest for ratings and the drive to come up with something new and exclusive to get audience attention take precedence.

Imagine what a reporter has to go through just to earn that paycheck. You’re pushed by deadlines to provide something that will appeal to the masses. Most of the time, you’re running stories that aren’t really big, but you’re just waiting for that big shot; that one chance to hit the limelight. Then, suddenly, word comes down from the suits that they like your ongoing investigation of a big story. They think it has merit. They think it will bring ratings. They want it on the air tonight. What? Its not ready? No, the suits don’t want to hear its not ready. You’ve been working on it for weeks on their dime. It had better be ready, or they’ll kill it and your one shot at being a network anchor.

How can someone regain their name after being dragged through the mud by the media? It’s not easy. Just ask Richard Jewell. That man had his name tarnished because a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution heard that Jewell was a possible suspect in the Olympic Park bombing. But even as the eyes of the international media descended on Jewel, I warned against such a rush to judgment. Jewell was wrongly persecuted by the media for no other reason than to quench the thirst of a blood-hungry audience.

More than at any time, the public needs to hold the media to the standards of excellence and accuracy that they proclaim. They need to take in every news report with a grain of salt, and be ever careful when the factual information ends and the sheer speculation and outright editorializing begins on the part of the reporter.

In many ways, the media created people like Matt Drudge, just as politics created commentators such as myself. Both were created from deficiencies in their respective institutions. But there are significant differences between commentaries and journalism. The journalists are supposed to report the news, while commentators react to the news. Those within the media who do not know the difference between the two should stick to commentaries and divorce themselves from the field of journalism.

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