Monday, July 11, 2011

Meet the Real Press

(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari Goldstein.)

What it does show is that this relationship between the police and the press is not restricted to the Metropolitan Police. - Dowler family attorney Mark Lewis

The sudden and shocking collapse of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World is an ongoing lesson for the necessity of a free and independent press.

One of the most frequent complaints of news consumers is the laziness and complacence of the mainstream media. And ever since Ted Williams was openly spitting in the direction of the "knights of the keyboard" at Fenway Park, right wingers have been pissing and moaning about "Gotcha" journalism and being quoted out of context or completely misquoted.

Sadly, they're not totally wrong but what we've been seeing in the news these past few days shows that most people tend to oversimplify the media and tend to think in terms of broad caricature. For instance, if News of the World, the tabloid rag owned by William Randolph Hearst-wannabe Rupert Murdoch, had been lazy and complacent, they wouldn't have been pushed or had pushed themselves to hack into the cell phones of over 4000 people going back to at least 2002. Indeed, if they'd spent half as much time and energy simply reporting the news and gathering information the conventional way, i.e. cultivating credible sources and triple sourcing their stories, not only would they not be joining the graveyard of other failed and defunct newspapers but they might have gone back to their 168 year-long roots of reporting straight news.

A few years ago, I took some time off and went to Provincetown, Massachusetts with a couple of my friends, old bandmates of mine from the '70's, to our ailing friend, Jo Jo. The night Jo Jo's husband told me about his fatal illness, he gave me an indelible lesson about the dangers of living in an Ivory Tower and phoning it in. A good liberal my entire life, I dutifully subscribe to The Nation magazine (for professional as well as political curiosity) and write checks to the causes that come flocking to my door as a result of my annual subscription. When I kill off a six pack, I cut the plastic rings so it won't wind up around the neck of a swan or goose.

So by late 2008 I was feeling pretty smug about being a fierce advocate for gay rights in my regular byline. Then Jo Jo's spouse Jeremy Fleming put me in my place when he furiously asked me, "What the hell do you know about our world? How many of us do you really know?"

Jeremy threw me for a loop and a half. He was right. I didn't actually know any gays, lesbians or bisexuals in my safe, homogeneous little bubble of suburbia. Later during the road trip, my own friend Billy Frazee, a former Navy SEAL, brought home the same point after I'd made the mistake of asking him what it felt like to kill someone.

"Why in God's name would you ask me something like that?" he asked with resentment. "You write about the military all the time in your fucking liberal rag but how many times have you actually spoken with someone who's killed people?"

Strike two. As with Jeremy, Billy was spot-on correct. Those two revelations brought home the fact that for the longest time, I'd been literally phoning it in, sending through the phone lines to Ari Goldstein, my editor in chief, emailed stories allegedly sourced through DoD and administration officials but not actual boots on the ground. Though I believed my stance on gay rights was the right and proper one, Jeremy reminded me that my childhood friend Jo Jo was the only gay man I knew and I hadn't seen him in close to 30 years.

So I resolved to rectify that by cultivating actual sources telling both sides of the story. You cannot effectively write about the ongoing struggle for gay rights unless you've spoken to people in the LGBT community. You cannot give the full story about the ongoing war theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan unless you've spoken to the men and women who do all the fighting and dying in the sand and rubble.

Simple, right? Yes, in theory, if you're on the outside looking in. Hindsight and objectivity invests one with a lot of false wisdom and moral superiority but the truth in how we get our stories is always a lot more complicated.

The Evils of a Codependent Press

The horrifying and morally hideous revelations about Rupert Murdoch's News of the World hacking into the cell phones of over 4000 unsuspecting people is the most indelible case on record for the necessity of a free and independent press, even if it's a tabloid rag with boobie pictures on the front page.

Just as New World Order conspiracy nuts like Alex Jones are looking wiser and wiser as the evils of globalization become more apparent, right wingers such as Newscorp employee Sarah Palin look more and more incisive while inveighing about the amoral "Gotcha" mentality of the "lamestream media." It's a crowning irony, that Sarah Palin, the "Queen of Mean", a Rupert Murdoch employee, would be partially vindicated through the actions of her boss's initiatives in the UK (and, we're now hearing, right here in the United States in the immediate wake of 9/11. Ironically or typically, not one major media outlet has picked up on this potentially explosive followup.)

The shockwaves are being felt not merely in the journalism community but at the highest echelons of the British government as well as the police authorities in London.

So far, the only significant fallout that Murdoch has suffered is the loss of unnecessary income resulting in NOTW's abrupt shuttering and having his attempt to acquire BSkyB impeded. Recently, Rebekah Brooks, CEO of Murdoch's News International appeared with her boss near his home in Mayfair, with Murdoch wearing a Panama hat, his deeply-lined face broadly distended in the tightest, most forced and disingenuous smile this side of Election Day. No doubt, it must infuriate the 200 who'd lost their jobs (largely through their own moral turpitude) while seeing Murdoch yukking it up with his still-employed CEO who likely sent the word down to get dirt any way they had to. To make matters more galling, Brooks agreed to be interviewed by Scotland Yard but only as a witness (i.e. innocent bystander) and not a suspect. Andy Coulson, Great Britain Prime Minister Cameron's former press secretary, was released almost as soon as he was arrested.

Meanwhile, the rank and file, hardly innocent victims, are scrambling about looking for jobs. What will they put on their CVs under "job description"? "Hacked into murdered children's cell phone accounts, deleted content, thereby giving false hope to their parents"? Good luck to them in their search for jobs working in the British mainstream media. "Do you want chips with that fish, luv?"

And the new allegations of News of the World's alleged attempts to hire private eyes to hack into the cell phones of 9/11 victims (paying particular attention to the UK victims) now, you would think, bring the failings of the mainstream media back home. But, as I said, not one mainstream media outlet including any of our own has even breathed a word of these allegations. Is it because it hasn't been sourced? Well, perhaps. But then again I'm talking about a MSM that prefers to try Casey Anthony in the press and obsesses over Charlie Sheen, runaway brides and Balloon Boys.

Incest is Not Best

And just as globalization and the decompartmentalization of national economies has proven to be a disastrous idea, so is the codependence of a formerly independent press and law enforcement. The revelations of NOTW hacking into the cell phone accounts of murder victims and hoping to find a lucky nugget of information at once brings home the laziness and misplaced energies of a British press completely insensible to the consequences of its actions.

It had honestly never occurred to the editors in the NOTW newsroom that by deleting content from murdered 13 year-old Milly Dowler's cell phone, they'd give her parents false hope that she was still alive. What no one seems to be asking is why they'd do that and what they'd deleted. Also, just as we were shocked to find out the Bush administration had been illegally spying on us through the NSA and the telecom giants, Murdoch's underlings had also been hacking into cell phone accounts over the same nine year-long span.

And the incestuous and collusive nature of this scandal is bad enough. At a time when the basic human right to privacy is being ignored, subverted and eroded both here and abroad, we're now learning that that basic right is not only treated with absolute contempt or as a quaint notion but as an obstacle to run around in the corporate, bottom line-driven quest for the tiniest advantage, even if it involves false hope and making a family revisit its worst horror after nearly a decade.

And they did so with the collusion of future government officials and the police department sworn to uphold the public trust.

The news game has always been a fiercely competitive one. But until the likes of Murdoch and Roger Ailes came along, television and print journalists stayed competitive by remaining independent and actually doing their jobs by reporting honestly and factually, impartially and cultivating contacts and sources. Seymour Hersh didn't break the My Lai scandal by bugging someone's phone and he didn't break the Abu Ghraib scandal by hacking into someone's computer. And Woodward and Bernstein didn't break Watergate because they themselves had broken into the White House with plumbers.

Back then, journalists competed with each other, not with laws, constitutions and basic human decency.


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