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Tethered Press
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Why The American Media Is Failing

By James Donahue

Journalism students usually hear about Thomas Jefferson’s quote about the importance of newspapers in relation to government. He said: “Were it left to me whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”

Indeed, those words have inspired many a journalist to assume his or her role as a member of the “Fourth Estate” and to work diligently as a watchdog over the actions of elected government representatives, whether in local city or township boards or in the highest levels of office.

What many people don’t know is that Jefferson, like all politicians, was not really that enamored by the press. He also said: “Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.” And he said: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”

It is clear that Jefferson possessed an understanding, even in his day, of just how complex the field of newspaper publishing can be and how pressures experienced by people in elected office can influence printed words in published newspapers.

Indeed, Jefferson recognized the importance of equitable and open-minded journalism and its role in keeping people in elected government jobs working in the best interests of their constituents. But he also knew that newspapers were businesses that were dependent upon advertising revenues for their existence. And this lead to conflicts between what reporters wrote and what the advertisers wanted to see in print.

Even in Jefferson’s day, the big money interests in every community possessed the political power because they maintained control over what appeared in published newspaper print. Because they did this, they controlled what the reading public was allowed to know.

Every journalist that has ever worked a political beat understands clearly how the “system” works and has struggled with the problem of political corruption that often reaches the publisher’s office. No matter how honest and dedicated the reporter may try to be, stories that should be told frequently get altered or they never appear in print at all. Consequently the media plays what can be a somewhat convoluted role in delivering stories of concern to public interest.

There have been many books and reports written by contemporary historians concerning the results of a failure by the media to correctly dig for facts and do the job it was designed to do. A recent book by Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher magazine, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits – and the President – Failed on Iraq, slams the media’s failures in exposing the misinformation that led America to an unnecessary and unprecedented assault on another country.

Several newspapers were working together in 2001 to reveal just what went wrong in the 2000 presidential elections that led to a Supreme Court decision to give the high office to George W. Bush. They were financing a recount of that controversial Florida election and were possibly on the brink of exposing mass election fraud when the nation was slammed with news of the 9-11 attack. Suddenly the attention of the world was shifted and the corruption that put Mr. Bush in office was conveniently buried.

Strangely, the unanswered questions about the 9-11 attacks also have remained topics where contemporary journalists fear to tread. The questions remain, but they are all delegated to the ranks of the “crazy conspiracy theorists” and receive little, if any, established media attention.

The few top journalists that have dared to ask hard and controversial questions have been quickly quashed and driven from their posts by unseen forces. They have been made examples for the other members of the media. Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather was driven from his job after becoming embroiled in a disputed news report involving the Bush 2004 presidential re-election. And outspoken reporter Helen Thomas lost her position with the Hearst Newspapers in 2010 after she made a controversial comment about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands in the Middle East. These were both “untouchable” issues.

The American media has not always been as tethered as it appears to be today. There were great moments, like the memorable work of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that uncovered the Watergate scandal and toppled the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Then there was the work of radio and television reporter Edward R. Murrow whose daring reporting helped topple the dynasty of Communist conspiracy hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

Those were good days for the American media. Unfortunately the industry has fallen unto hard times and is more dependent than ever on the advertising dollar for its survival. The media is no longer limited to the printed word in magazines and newspapers, but has expanded to radio, television and most recently, the Internet.

The news reporting sweeping the Internet first began on a limited basis, but has since become a major competitor to printed news publications and even television news. The Internet news can be found from all around the world. Photos and individually shot video footage of major news events are flashed around the world even as things are happening. Even the most sophisticated television news teams can no longer compete against this kind of live stream reporting.

The infamous Wikileaks web site, created by Australian Julian Assange, has opened an interesting new insight as to just how important the Internet can be in providing real journalistic freedoms not only in the United States, but for the entire world. The web site and a number of its mirror sites, publish daily bundles of once “secret” government documents that expose misbehavior by world power brokers. It is not surprising that Assange is now locked up in a Swedish jail on sexual abuse charges. He is under fierce assault by power figures that are willing to do anything to stop this new form of journalism from succeeding.

The Wikileaks case is somewhat akin to the old Bible story of David vs. Goliath. If Assange wins, the world may begin to enjoy the fruits of the very journalistic power that Jefferson once envisioned. It has the potential of operating as a truly “free” press without the shackles its need for financial support created.

Right on cue, legislators in the U.S. are pressing to put a law on the books that would censor any Internet website that dares to publish information that might embarrass or expose misdeeds by people in high government office. The bill, the Protect IP Act sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch, would allow “any copyright holder” or the Department of Justice the power to force search engines, browsers and service providers to block user’s access to targeted websites and scrub the American Internet clean of any trace of their existence.

The Protect IP Act is presented as a protection against copyright infringement of recorded and filmed material by foreign interests, but the wording includes censorship of Internet sites that dare to blow the whistle on government activities under the guise of protecting national security.

It all boils down to a plan to place government and corporate controls on Internet journalists like Julian Assange who not only dare to throw sunshine into the dark shadows of government, but threaten the future of the old and perhaps outdated television and newspaper communications industries.