Keeping media free

Bill Moyers was a PBS radio personality and outspoken critic of media consolidation. During a recent media conference on reform in St Louis, Missouri, Moyers unloaded on the challenges ahead for independent media and the institutional acceptance of many in the mainstream media that it isn’t news unless an official says so. Sound familiar?

Some highlights:

In a recent essay, media commentator Jonathan Mermin discussed the failures of the mainstream media to fully understand its role, especially in time of war.

“Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post on why the deep interests of the American public are so poorly served by beltway journalism. The “rules of our game,” says Ignatius, “make it hard for us to tee up an issue…without a news peg.” He offers a case in point: the debacle of America’s occupation of Iraq. “If Senator so and so hasn’t criticized post-war planning for Iraq,” says Ignatius, “then it’s hard for a reporter to write a story about that.”

“Mermin also quotes public television’s Jim Lehrer acknowledging that unless an official says something is so, it isn’t news. Why were journalists not discussing the occupation of Iraq? Because, says Lehrer, “the word occupation…was never mentioned in the run-up to the war.” Washington talked about the invasion as “a war of liberation, not a war of occupation, so as a consequence, “those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.”

“In other words,” says Jonathan Mermin, “if the government isn’t talking about it, we don’t report it.” He concludes, “[Lehrer’s] somewhat jarring declaration, one of many recent admissions by journalists that their reporting failed to prepare the public for the calamitous occupation that has followed the ”˜liberation’ of Iraq, reveals just how far the actual practice of American journalism has deviated from the First Amendment ideal of a press that is independent of the government.”

“Take the example (also cited by Mermin) of Charles J. Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Associated Press, whose fall 2003 story on the torture of Iraqis in American prisons – before a U.S. Army report and photographs documenting the abuse surfaced – was ignored by major American newspapers. Hanley attributes this lack of interest to the fact that “It was not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source.” Furthermore, Iraqis recounting their own personal experience of Abu Ghraib simply did not have the credibility with beltway journalists of American officials denying that such things happened. Judith Miller of The New York Times, among others, relied on the credibility of official but unnamed sources when she served essentially as the government stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.”

We are increasingly fed government sanctioned leaks as “news”. In Australia, and the intimacy of the establishment press, taking a risk on a story requires more than just a hunch and a great lead. Progressives need to better engage with the wider public and convince people that stories like this (a suggestion by outgoing ASIO director-general, Dennis Richardson that “ASIO’s powers to question and detain those suspected of being involved with terrorists or having information about them should be permanently enshrined in legislation”) are simply another unacceptable step in interfering with our lives. Besides, like the torture debate, to give power to institutions that have become so politicised under the Howard reign, would be folly in the extreme.

As Crikey reported this week, we are likely to see before year’s end a major overhaul of the country’s cross media laws. Christian Kerr’s report should be required reading for anyone arguing greater diversity will be the result of the changes.

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