Monday, July 05, 2010

Truly independent American journalists don't work for big organizations

Jul 4, 2010
America's good, subservient press
On Independence Day, noting that the truly independent American journalists don't work for big organizations
By Dan Gillmor

Journalists tend to take themselves too seriously, and their craft not seriously enough. So it is apt that some famous and obscure quotations and aphorisms about the value and function of a free press adorn the tiled walls of the restrooms at Rhodes University's African Media Matrix -- the building that houses what is widely considered the continent's top journalism school.

One of those quotes is from Nelson Mandela, spoken in 2002, and it feels dismayingly correct today:

“A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press."

In the wake of a major journalistic scandal in the United States, broken open in the last week, I have to say that America's establishment press has never been technically better, but never more pathetically subservient. My hopes increasingly ride on an often bad free press that is getting better all the time.

Let me also say, upfront, that there are honorable exceptions in the top ranks of America's major media organizations. But in what may well be seen someday as a seminal event in U.S. media history, senior people at the two newspapers widely considered to offer the most comprenensive political coverage have admitted -- and, God help us, defended -- their technically good subservience to the American government.

Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has discussed in detail the truly disheartening response to a Harvard study showing that the Washington Post and New York Times skewed their coverage of America's post-9/11 torture policy, using the Bush administration's newspeak language -- "harsh interrogation techniques" was a favorite -- instead of plain old "torture," the word they'd previously used to describe the same acts.

And then, when asked why, top editors and spokespeople at both papers effectively said that once the Bush administration and Republican allies had pushed for the new language, the news organizations were duty-bound to use it, too, or else be seen as slanting the news.

That the news organizations had changed their language was itself disgraceful. That they then compounded the damage, with a defense that was almost the definition of a subservient press, was heartbreaking.

But George Orwell was rolling in his grave -- perhaps with joy that he's been proved so right, but also pure despair...

The New York Times and Washington Post have done wonderful work through their modern existence. But their failures are so profound in recent years that it's hard to maintain any confidence in them.

So for all of the excellence they've fostered, the editors at these famous institutions who refused to call torture what it was -- bowing to the bogus and odious idea that channeling partisan propaganda was serving their readers -- harmed their organizations with those cowardly word games.

And when they defended their acts of cowardice and dismissed criticism as tendentious, they went beyond harm. Their pride in subservience was a disgrace.

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