ELUSIVE TRUTH

A few months ago I wrote a blog expressing my concerns about the big guys in the news business gobbling up the little ones, and how the big guys get even bigger by merging.

The continuation of this process was brought home to me when I received notice that Time-Warner, my supplier of internet service, telephone, and TV cable, had merged with Comcast. As its name implies Time –Warner brought with them Time magazine, CNN, and other entities which they had acquired through mergers and acquisitions. Comcast contributed a few more assets they had accumulated in similar fashion, including NBC and its affiliates. I felt their new name, “Spectrum” was most appropriate as it seems as if they do cover all the bases.
There was some concern that this marriage of the giants was in violation of the antitrust laws, but we are lacking a Teddy Roosevelt, and the union was blessed by those who are charged with ensuring that we have access to more than one source for news. In the last two decades there have been hundreds of billions of dollars spent on similar mergers of media organizations throughout the country. Even small communities, such as mine, have not been immune from the effects of media conglomeration. There was a time when there was a family owned newspaper in our town, now it is owned by Gannett. The impressive two story building it once occupied is now vacant. It is printed in another town and maintains a small office in a strip mall which is open 4 hours per day. Gannett also owns papers in at least two adjoining counties. Our paper is now valued only for its obituaries and local sports reports. A former family-owned local radio station now identifies itself with the announcement: “Fox news, fair and balanced” (a description which some might call a stretch).

The Wisdom of our Forefathers

It is noteworthy that the guys who designed our democracy were very aware of the need for an independent and unencumbered vehicle to keep the citizens informed as to the government’s actions. With that in mind, the first addition they made to the Constitution was the first amendment. The importance of such institutions has been confirmed time and again, and is not lost on the dictators of the world who realize that control of information is an essential component of a repressive government. Consequently, the overthrow of a government is always accompanied by a takeover of news outlets.

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson (by Rembrandt Peale, 1800).jpg

Jefferson famously said: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” Is it reasonable to expect that the news we receive might not be limited by our dependence on a very few news outlets dominated by huge corporations that might have reasons to distort or withhold information? If it’s true that information is power, could concentration of information in the hands of a few multinational businesses with diverse interests result in instances of the proverbial tail wagging the dog? If they choose to exercise it, their power to influence the government could dwarf the effects of the “Citizens United” boondoggle. Without competition, freedom of the press could be turned on its head and used to diminish rather than enhance the democratic process.

Fortunately we still appear to have a cadre of journalists committed to seeking truth in the tradition of Woodward and Bernstein, who with the help of leaks from a concerned informant were able to uncover a plot by Nixon to compromise the electoral process. There is much smoke surrounding our recent election, and there is an urgent need to find its source. At a time when there is such extreme polarity between political parties and public opinion of Congress is at an all-time low, congressional investigations are apt to be greeted with a great deal of skepticism.

Today’s investigative reporters may find it more difficult to uncover those explanations. In politician school, those who aspire to holding office are well schooled in techniques that allow them to avoid answering questions. This is especially true with yes or no questions, for which monosyllable responses are absolutely forbidden. They are taught to respond in those instances with a litany of “talking points” which they must memorize to cover all subjects. That technique seems to work very well for I have yet to see an interviewer interpret such a response as a refusal to answer. Politicians do not like such simple inquiries and often call them “gotcha questions.”
Now that many reporters are employed by mega corporations for whom news gathering may be a minor activity when compared to their varied interests, it seems naïve to think that corporate interests will not filter down to those who decide what is newsworthy or worth investigating. In that vein, the February 24th issue of The Intercept quotes Leslie Moonves, the CEO of CBS, as follows: “The Trump campaign may not be good for America, but is damn good for CBS.” He also recently praised Trump’s choice of Mr.Ajit Pai for FCC chairman because he was convinced that Mr. Pai was in favor of revising regulations that limit the number of news outlets one company may own in a given area. He goes on to say “…..if the cap is lifted we would go on to buy some more stations” (sorry but those Mom and Pop stations have got to go, competition be damned).
Mr. Trump seems to be a big fan of a free press (i.e. freedom to say good things about himself but as for criticism not so much). To that end, he recently banned reporters from a press briefing whom he felt had not been complimentary. Fortunately, there was sufficient blow-back to result in the scuttling of that strategy. His accusations, criticisms, and threats against news organizations are never ending. In a Politico article one year ago he is quoted as saying that if elected he would “open up the libel laws” to make it easier to sue, and went on to say: “when I am elected they will have problems.”
This may not be as crazy as it sounds for Mr. Trump has apparently used frivolous law suits as a very effective weapon in the past. Perhaps that may account for the use of synonyms such as misspoke, out of context, or alternative facts instead of a less polite word like lying. As a matter of fact, I wonder how much jeopardy in which I place myself by writing all this stuff. Of course when intimidation doesn’t work one may always discredit, and of course our president has shown himself to be a master of that strategy. He uses words like fake news, dishonest, horrible, false, and disgraceful to describe papers such as the New York Times and Washington post. He has also told his audience that the press is “their enemy.”
When I previously expressed my concerns about the survival of a free press, I believe that I held out hope that the internet would become a source for news and diverse interpretations that might counter the disappearance of so many sources for news. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center’s July 2016 report that is rapidly occurring.  Although 85% of us old folks continue to get much of our news on television; half of those 50 and under frequently use the internet as their news source. Half of the people 65 and over continue to read newspapers while only 5% of those 30 and under read traditional print papers. The trend toward online news will likely continue to increase as we old soldiers fade away.
The downside of the proliferation of Walter Cronkite wannabees, which will undoubtedly occur as readership increases, is that we may be deluged with so much information that fact checking will be impossible.  The ease which information can be transmitted on the internet, especially through social media is a mixed blessing.  Although it can readily used to transmit useful information by anyone, it can also be a conduit for the transmission of  so called “fake news”.  I find it interesting that the term “fake news” has now become an accepted part of our lexicon.  This term, originally coined by our President, is a non sequitur, for if it is fake it is a lie not news.  No matter its name, there seems to be a lot of it these days.  There appears to be no solution to this problem for a free press also leaves one free to tell lies unless they are libelous or slanderous.  It would also be nice if reporters could avoid the celebrity trap which in my opinion has sometimes colored their perspective.  In recent years the National press club roast of the President has looked more like the Academy awards ceremony than a celebration of journalism.

So called leaks to the news media have gained much attention lately.  Attempts to discover the identity of the informants at times seem to garner more attention than does the information they transmit.  The issue of informants presents us with a difficult conundrum.  The assurance of anonymity has freed up innumerable whistle blowers to expose corruption. has been an extremely valuable tool for journalists.  Some reporters have even gone to jail rather than reveal their sources.  Of course there have always been instances where disclosure of leaked information could do harm as for example when it could impede an on going investigation.  Now however the stakes are much higher in that some secrets are necessary for our defense in a hostile world where information is king.  On the other hand it is not unusual for documents and such to be classified secret in order to hide things which have nothing to do with national defense.  The problem is further aggravated by the availability of hacked information.  There seems little doubt that Assange, the Wiki-leaks guy is no friend of the United States.

In my profession as with many others we swear an oath to abide by certain principles. Those on whom we depend to keep us informed are  the guardians of our liberty, and no less important than doctors, clergy, judges, elected officials and such.  If journalists do not take such an oath, they should.  Should there not be any consequences for those who deliberately falsify?  Apparently not if the liar is the star of the most watched news program on TV as was the case with Bill O’Reilly.  I comfort myself with the thought that this was an aberration and that most are not unduly committed to maintaining their company”s bottom line.

The pursuit of truth is not without danger.  Many have died doing their jobs, and others imprisoned.  They should be honored for all they do.  I hope they realize the importance of their work.

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