Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Influencing the press in time of war 

For all those in a twist over payments by the American military to Iraqi journalists, and (on the other side) the obvious anti-war and even anti-American bias in most mainstream media coverage of the war, The Boston Globe has published a must-read op-ed by Michael Socolow, a professor of journalism at the University of Maine. Socolow supplies essential historical perspective:
SIXTY-FOUR years ago, the governments of Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Congress replied in kind later that same afternoon. The government had been quietly preparing for modern war, but once it arrived few understood the demands it would make on American society.

At some point on that day, President Roosevelt told press adviser Stephen Early that the government needed to acquire one of the national radio networks. Now that America was at war, the government's requirement for unmediated and direct communication was essential. Early telephoned Federal Communications Commission chairman James L. Fly and ordered him to speak to David Sarnoff, NBC's chairman. Fly and Sarnoff were ''to work out, confidentially for the time being, ways and means by which the government can utilize the [NBC] Blue Network for the period of the war." Roosevelt, Early told Fly, suggested that the government could ''rent the Blue Network facilities for the duration of the war and for the use of such time as the government needs in order to disseminate its own information."

Ultimately, the government did not assume control over NBC Blue, or any other private commercial radio network, during the war. Fly convinced Early that the networks would work closely with the Office of War Information to ensure access to the airwaves.

Can we imagine such accomodation today? Socolow also counsels balance:
Too often we in the United States forget the radical, even revolutionary implications of our media system. It trusts an essentially indefinable group of people (''the press") to serve the public interest by interposing itself between political authority and the citizenry. The concept of a government pledged to protect independent reporting on its own behavior remains subversive to most authorities around the globe.

The conversations held in Roosevelt's White House are clearly relevant to today's climate of press-government tension. Just as Roosevelt, in a 1942 fireside chat, inveighed against ''the typewriter strategists who expound their views in the press or on the radio," the Bush administration fumes over reporting it considers inaccurate, unrepresentative of reality, and antagonistic. The current administration continues to develop multiple strategies to connect directly with people -- whether in the United States, Iraq, or elsewhere. The recent furor over payments to Iraqi journalists in exchange for publication of US government-authorized news accounts attests to a level of desperation. This administration's recurrent attempts at direct communication demonstrate an intention to subvert the purpose of the First Amendment.

But the government is not acting in a vacuum. It is reacting to a media environment marked by enormous hostility. Skepticism is healthy, but too many journalists practice reporting informed by a pessimistic cynicism. This corrosive attitude is damaging the news industry; newspaper circulation and TV news viewership continue to decline.

The tension between the press and the government has hypertrophied to the point that neither is acting in the public interest. It is time for these two adversaries to discuss the patterns of behavior creating such rancor and frustration. Both sides must be willing to exchange and recognize legitimate criticism in an open forum. Grievances may not be easily resolved. But discussion in the spirit of inquiry rather than recrimination will initiate a more constuctive relationship.

While I do not agree that the government's "attempts at direct communication" demonstrate in any way, shape or form "an intention to subvert the purpose of the First Amendment" -- Socolow misapprehends both the plain words and the deeper purpose of that constitutional right -- there is no question that he is correct in his broader assessment. There is no trust left between the government and the press, and that is not entirely the fault of the government. It also derives from the political ideology of modern journalists -- that they owe no duty of citizenship or patriotism in the practice of their craft, an idea that would have been alien to the great reporters of World War II. While Socolow's wish that journalists and government would approach each other in a "spirit of inquiry rather than recrimination" is salutory, it will not happen until American journalists remember that they are Americans.


By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Tue Dec 13, 06:09:00 PM:


There are a lot of Americans today (including some members of the media) who do not view patriotism as a virtue but also will take grave offense if their patriotism is questioned. They can't have it both ways. What is needed is to keep up the pressure on folks in this category. Sooner or later, some will break in one direction and some in the other -- and public discourse will be clearer and more principled in any event.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Dec 13, 10:44:00 PM:

This comment is illustrative of a polarizing attitude that can be divisive. It seems that same lack of compromise is also part of the reason for the current antagonistic relationship between the press and White House. The White House has not been very forthcoming to the press and is resented for it. Citing a covert agreement between NBC and
FDR as "patriotic" is a deceitful patriotism. In this free market system it would seem that all points of view have equal chance of being represented. The "media" is the public- the bosses are the paper buying public. Truth will prevail and compromise should be a value to be worked towards instead of a sign of weakness.

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