Every time a reporter or news reader opens his or her mouth, my hackles get up. When they decide to take on some issues I just stand there slack-jawed in wide-eyed wonder.
This evening I was driving and listening to talk radio. The topic was the insurgency in Iraq. The pundit was a master of the painfully obvious, stating that the insurgency had no real tactical strategy, but was working on eroding the American people’s national resolve. Truly this was an astute observation.
But then a related issue came up regarding the role of the news media. It was stated, by a newsman no less, that the professional obligation of the media outweighed any moral obligation to the families of slain service members or to the safety and security of those service members still deployed. It is more important to “report the news” than to wrestle with the potential repercussions of that reporting.
The message is clear: the news media is above accountability.
Of course some will say that there are plenty of accountability structures out there to check the news media. Just consider all the bloggers.
But this only begins to address the issue. Blogs may speak to accuracy of facts reported, and perhaps it makes connections that mainstream media don’t always get. But these only scratch the surface. Neither bloggers nor media outlets bear any responsibility for the ramifications of that which they choose to report.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in a free press. But I also believe in a responsible press. Freedom without responsibility is a recipe for disaster.
Does the public have the right to know the things that the media report? That may be a topic for debate. Yet does the public have the need to know? Is it beneficial to know all this information? Or said another way, is that which the media report, in a word, news? Are the six stories which dominates the news cycle for a given 24 hour period the most important six events in that 24 hours, globally speaking? Not likely.
A problem that goes unaddressed is that the news media are not acting according to a noble vocation to “report the news.” They are not about selflessly and objectively telling the people what is important; even less, enduring. They are about giving the market what it demands. They choose the stories and the methods of reporting to create a perceived need that they can fulfill with a product. If they stop doing this they instantly become irrelevant.
I might use the example of the insurgency in Iraq to illustrate my point. The news media report that insurgents don’t seek to win tactically, on a battlefield, but politically and emotionally, in the hearts and minds of their enemies. They seek to erode the resolve of the American public. The news media are the vehicles by which the insurgency chips away at this resolve.
We’re told several times each day how many American lives were–quite tragically–lost in the previous day in Iraq. As tragic as those deaths are, as important as those lives were, does this fact have an enduring quality to it? In ten years will it be globally and historically significant that seven died on Friday? It’s not terribly likely.
In fact it is this kind of reporting that serves as a significant insurgent weapon against the US and her allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. This weapon will continue to prolong and complicate the conflict, increasing the casualty toll. Bad for the nation, bad for the people, but good for the media, because it creates both a product and a demand for it. And we’re generally dumber for having partaken of it.
The logic, importance, significance, or ethical value of what is reported as news doesn’t matter. What really matters is that there is something–anything–to report. Forget any consequence beyond the news cycle.