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Media Responsibilities: Reasons We Publish What We Publish

Les Blough, Editor, Axis of Logic

Feb 2, 2006

I agree with Robert Thompson's assessment of the publication of anti-Muslim political cartoons in Jyllands-Posten in Copenhagen. The publication caused uproar resulting in a powerful boycott against the purchase of Danish goods, internationally. Any honest reader must agree that these cartoons were obviously designed to cause distress, conflict, and hatred toward Islam and Muslims. Rather than encouraging the reader to give this publisher more traffic, we will briefly describe 2 of the cartoons to allay curiousity. They are not worth viewing. One of the cartoons depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a "terrorist" and another is a slur against all Muslims everywhere. Those who claim the right to free speech as a defense of this sort of publication are either confused or are of the same meanness of spirit and mind that is expressed in the cartoons. Predictably, the publisher attempts a "free press" defense for what it has done.

The "Free Speech" Defense
For far too long, the corporate news and entertainment media has hidden their lewd and politically-motivated behavior behind their demands for "freedom of speech". We as members of the same human family must realize that the media is an extremely powerful tool in all our societies. Simply put, a power differential exists when considering the influence of the media on all people, not to speak of young people and children. The media has an enormous responsibility. One of their responsibilities is to build up, encourage and strengthen family and societal structures that serve the people as a whole. Instead, what we see in the entertainment and news industries are constant attacks on the structures that hold society together; values of mutual respect for the things that are important to our fellows, positive regard for the values of others and common courtesy.
The corporate media defends its destructive practices by claiming that such considerations are a "slippery slope" - pretending that such self-imposed restrictions amount to censorship and will lead to imposition of the media's values on others. They pretend to be "value-free" - a position that is at once - disingenuous and philosophically naive. All people and all organizations do what they do from underlying sets of assumptions and values. The honest ones admit to the genesis of their ideas and behaviors; the dishonest ones do not.
What is "Fit to Print"?
In my 11 years of higher education I was only once asked to leave a class. It was a Jouralism course at the University of Tennessee and the professor was an editor at the Nashville Tennessean. In this particular lecture, he was using the term "newsworthy" in what I thought to be a cavalier manner. I raised my hand and began an in-class discussion with him. I will try to recall that discussion to my best memory - paraphrasing, of course:
LMB: How do you as an editor determine what is "newsworthy"?
Professor: "It should be obvious" (and began to move on with his lecture)
LMB: "But you haven't really answered my question"
Professor: "We give the people what they want".
LMB: "What if what you determine to be 'what the people want' turns out to be  destructive to society as a whole?"
Professor: If the media determines what's good for people, they are placing themselves in power over society instead of submitting to the will of the people.
LMB: How do you know that what the people want is the best thing?
Professor: We have to assume that it is. Otherwise, we are imposing our values on them.
LMB: How do you determine what the people want?
Professor: Simple - by the numbers - our circulation. If we're not giving people what they want, they will stop buying our newpapers.
LMB: Doesn't the will of the advertisers come into play somewhere in that scheme?
Professor: No, they choose to advertise in our paper based on our circulation.
LMB: So you're telling us that the editors of the Nashville Tennessean speculate by floating news and opinion articles and if people continue to buy the paper, you know your articles are "newsworthy" and if they stop buying your paper, you know that you have to make some adjustments in your criteria for what is "newsworthy"?
Professor: That's correct.
LMB: So you don't see that you have any responsibility for whether or not your publication is a constructive force in society or one that causes a breakdown in social order and harmony?
Professor: We believe people know what is best for themselves.
LMB: When I persisted with my argument, the professor became frustrated with me and asked me to leave the class. I was a young man and "full of piss and vinegar" as they say. I'm sure now that in his view, I deserved it!
This little discussion that took place more than 30 years ago fairly depicts part of the corporate media's defense for their theory and practice even today. There is a fundamental abrogation of responsibility in the position the professor held. As individuals and organizations of individuals, we are responsible for the words we speak, the news articles and essays we publish, the words we select to convey them and for the scripts and films we write, produce and broadcast.

That powerful instrument called "television" blasts society day after day, night after night with images of violence, explicit sex and mean-spirited words. When a parent is watching a rare, benign sitcom with his child, why should the television broadcaster have the right to suddenly surprise them with images of violence and sex in a movie commercial? Shouldn't parents have the right to choose their time to discuss these matters with their children in their own way - rather than have a stranger suddenly enter their living room with vile images and messages?
What little child's mind can be a match for the smart, sophisticated technologies that produce rapid-fire images, not allowing the child to recover from one before being hit with the next? Unrealistic, "Reality Shows" like Fear Factor and the Jerry Springer Show degrade human beings with their mockeries, pitching hapless people against one another, generating mean-spirited attitudes, conflict and anger among the viewing audience.
The political agendas, lack of integrity and responsibility of television news hardly needs to be described. Today, we published dramatic charts that show the deceitfulness with which they have reported the deaths of children in Palestine since the beginning of the second Intifada. They attempt to justify these social atrocities with lame rationalizations. But we all know that their bottom line is ratings and money. We all know that they are not "value-free" but have underlying political agendas dictated by external forces in the government and large corporations.
The Print Media
The powerful, corporate print media is no better. We see what they select to print and what they choose to omit. The people see their careful wording of news articles. For the last 5 years we have watched them manufacture fear among the people with their warnings against an enemy that never existed. We have watched them support the wars on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq and then gradually begin to distance themselves from those wars as they turned sour and the people turned against them. The owners and publishers of the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and many other newspapers have blood on their hands today - the blood of children, women and men who never posed a threat to them or anyone in the so-called "western world". They are as guilty for their roles in these wars as the politicians, military officers and triggermen are for theirs.
From shows like, "Cops" and "Survival" to "Sex in the City" to "House" - negative attitudes of meanness, vengeance, retribution and cynicism are pervasive throughout the corporate media. Seldom do we see tenderness, kindness, gentleness, real love, complete compassion and other positive, loving human conditions promoted among human relationships in the media. Typically, we see melancholy, pity and shallow emotions surrounding a theme of "getting the bad guy" - so there can be "closure" for the victim - a formula that makes heroes out of cops and worship at the altar of a police state. The formula of the villain, the victim and the rescuer. The viewer is left with hatred for the villain, pity for the victim and an awesome admiration for the rescuer - i.e. the state.
I say the position taken by my professor so long ago is only "part of their defense" because most media bosses would also be quick to determine - not only what is "newsworthy" but also what is "not newsworthy" even morally wrong - as in the famous motto of the NYT, "All the news that's fit to print". And therein lies what is known in debating circles as their "internal inconsistency". This part of their defense obviously contradicts the explanation given by my professor many years ago. This position is the same assumption that has produced "hate laws" and our modern "thought police".
Corporate Media Wants it Both Ways
So the corporate media wants - and has had it - both ways. If they publish something that's mean-spirited and destructive - they can blame it on the people because, "We are only giving them what they want". If they wish to publish something that fits with their own values or the values and agenda of their advertisers - they can claim their social responsibility as justification. When pinned down in a formal debate on these issues - and challenged about where "free speech" begins and ends, they frequently use the "You can't cry 'Fire!' in a crowded movie theater" argument. Their strategy in this debate is as simple as it is obvious -wear the opponent down with obfuscation and circular logic.  
Why was it wrong for Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper in Denmark, to publish offensive and misleading cartoons about Mohammed, Muslims and ultimately their faith: Islam? Generally, it was wrong because their publications have power to influence large numbers of people and they are ultimately responsible for the effects their work has on society - for good or ill. One of the specific reasons it was wrong was the cartoons are a vile, disrepectful and uncivil attack on the Muslim people and their religion. The newspaper defended itself by saying that they have published cartoons that were also "critical" of Christianity. Even a child knows - especially a child knows - "two wrongs don't make a right". This defense appeared to make the strong, international objections raised by Muslims as being somehow unreasonable and telling something about "the Muslim temperment" - repeating the suggestion that Islam is inherently aggressive and violent. But if anyone published something about "their temperment" - referrent to certain other religious or ethnic bodies they would be denounced as "racist", "bigot" or "anti-semitic".
Complexity used to obfuscate and defend
Reasonable rules for publication are not as complex as the corporate media and judiciary have tried to make them. Making them complex with circular argumentation and obfuscations is a method used by those who hide from the light of simplicity and honesty. We will not get sucked into their relativistic arguments on these matters - at least not outside the integrity of a formal debate. But we will explain our own rules for publication and will freely publish your honest critique of our practices.
At Axis of Logic, we freely admit to our set of assumptions, our values and presuppositions. For it is from those assumptions and values we determine what we think is "newsworthy" and important to make known to the public. We make no apology for doing our best to tear down forces and practices that we believe are degrading and destructive to people as individuals and societies as wholes. We will do what we can to bring light to bear on things done in darkness by those who are in power. We will do our best to expose the things done by them in secret. But we also have a responsibility to praise what is right, good and true. How do we know what is "right, good and true"? First and foremost, we know "the right thing" because we know it intuitively. We also provide the reader with standards against which she or he can measure our performance - the values we set forth in our manifesto and our mission statement. Do we make mistakes? Absolutely. Sometimes in the heat of passion we may write and publish things in a discourteous manner or even things that are not factually correct. But if when we become aware or are made aware of those misdeeds - we will apologize - as we have in the past - publish a retraction prominently and learn from the experience.
- Les Blough
ę Copyright 2006 by AxisofLogic.com

Additional letters and essays by Robert Thompson

Additional essays and poetry by Les Blough

:: Article nr. 20251 sent on 03-feb-2006 07:35 ECT


Link: www.axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/article_20978.shtml

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