Friday, November 30, 2012

Should the Press Be Given Freedom?

The Old Power of The Traditional Media

Having a discussion with friends on American Thanksgiving last week about freedom of the press, we agreed that newspapers and television news programs in the past had too much power. Journalists gathered together news from various sources and synthesized the various pieces into a coherent whole.The traditional media gave the public measured news stories, one at a time.

 We had to be content with whatever was considered organized at a level worthy of being thrown our way. We had to take what we were given and didn't have any choice, however disorganized and unbelievable the results appeared. The press was powerful enough to be able to shape the news any way it chose and did not have the accountability and public voice of disagreement that we have now, except in those exalted "Letters to the Editor." Amazingly, some people who believe they can influence the public still write those letters. Yet now, even the most exalted traditional journalists are subjected and exposed to the often humiliating language, bad grammar, and ill-will of their online comment sections.

With the chaos of the proliferation of online news aggregators, twitter-sphere and blogs, those aging traditional outlets aren't the single source of news they used to be. And more importantly, and progressively, they haven't the power they once had to make their single point of view the only one available.

If someone makes a statement that is incorrect, thousands of voices can be heard trying to correct and sway public opinion. Twitter and blogs help form new public opinions beyond the influence of the traditional media and current governments.

The Daily Mail Online

Tina Brown mentioned in an interview with Slate that she reads Daily Mail Online.  I have admired and followed her career from years way back in the seventies as editor of Tatler magazine to recently as founder of The Daily Beast. So I have to admit to surprise that she reads it.

The Daily Mail was, maybe still is, considered a tabloid newspaper by many in the United Kingdom but she said it has something for everyone. So bravely I began to read it online, not having been a tabloid reader ever before in my life, I can honestly admit, even when I lived in England. Tabloids are famous for saying what the public wishes to hear however crass. We have to wonder whether they make up salient details in some of their stories. And I expected to be disappointed with the quality and believability of articles. 

Instead, I have to admit the Daily Mail Online is a very content-rich site, and one of my favorite new finds despite my lingering doubts on content, as I do with many sites, by the way. Read it and it will probably swiftly become one your favorite bookmarked sites too.

Today, for example, the venerable American news source The Wall Street Journal mentioned that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), had not settled any official amount with the maid who accused him of a horrible act in New York City. But the Daily Mail Online, in their article, said the two had settled for an amount in the region of 3 million dollars (And it's not necessarily accurate). 

How to explain the disparity? Now perhaps the Wall Street Journal gave out only one version of their story and did not update it. If the Wall Street Journal doesn't update the story tomorrow or Monday to match that of the Daily Mail Online, what's the truth? And where did the Daily Mail Online get its' number?

It's true that having part of a story can be confusing, but it's not evil on the reader's part to have only one section of a story and want to hear the whole truth. The Wall Street Journal is doing nothing wrong by not updating. At the same time, it's not telling the whole truth. So it's either withholding the truth or else it hasn't verified the truth and doesn't know the whole story. Perhaps the number in the settlement is incorrect, and we don't know whether the number has been verified, if the Daily Mail Online takes the trouble to check facts and verify as strictly as the Wall Street Journal. Many of us doubt it, and yet we take the story in the Daily Mail Online:

1) at face value, as the truth
2) we're the opposite, skeptical. We don't believe it and take it with flakes of salt, or
3) we withhold judgment until the truth comes out

Freedom of the Press

In answer to whether the press needs freedom? Absolutely yes, it must be permitted and encouraged. Having freedom of choice is another basic freedom of human life, if we're good and lucky and we happen to live in a country that supports freedom of choice as a matter of policy and public opinion. And whether the truth is ultimately won or not, the point is that voices of the press should have freedom of expression. 

For me, the shock of hearing the Presidential candidate(s) in the debates of 2012 speak without regard for the truth was a tipping point.  It is said that one powerful candidate actually lied about thirty times in the first forty-minute debate! They made many points sufficiently far off the mark and unverifiable that any journalist would have been completely unable to speak up and stop them at every inconsistency or outright lie. It would have been impossible for anyone to stem the barrage of falsehoods the candidates tossed around so casually and unremorsefully. I, for one, had less rather than more respect when I heard these untruths.

Freedom to intrude, however, by anyone including journalists is not news, not admirable, and difficult for editors to stop. Details in news stories, especially salacious ones, reel in readers. We have to wonder how the Daily Mail Online got its number in the DSK settlement.

The source of the news doesn't really matter to most of us. The truth matters, but not how the truth was discovered. Laws govern us based on the truth, and many courts revolve around details, what they were and how they were found. Details in the news are all part of the chaos of daily life out there.  But the truth does matter, we all prefer that. We need truth to evolve with progressive attitudes and laws. And it takes all sorts of freedom to discover the truth: freedom of choice; freedom of expression; and freedom to ask questions and do whatever is necessary to find the answers.

Life is messy and reading these news aggregator sites, our modern online newspapers, can make it even more so.

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