June 11, 1993

The Power of the Press

The press, like fire, is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.

J. Fenimore Cooper, 1838

In our modern world, TV makes it possible to actually see a war and some of the atrocities involved. However, in a news bit you won't see very much. It is easy to present all horror, or to diminish the horror to insignificance. The easiest thing in the world is to find a dying emaciated adult or child in Africa. Even countries that are prosperous and at peace have them. You could find dying children in this country if you knew where to look. Whether or not it is shown to the public is a matter of choice by the reporters, networks, newspapers etc. This being the case, newspeople can create a disaster, whether or not it really exists, or diminish a real disaster to insignificance.

By the press, I mean the combination of the news services, TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. It has an immense amount of influence, and the potential for abuse is frightening.

In 1898, artist Frederick Remington cabled that everything was quiet in Cuba and that there would be no war. His boss William Randolph Hearst replied, "you furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." The result was the Spanish American War. I understand that Hearst was one of many editors, at that time, pushing for a war with Spain.

Every reporter, editor, columnist or commentator has strong opinions. What keeps him honest is his personal ethics and morals and the ethics and morals of his boss.

An ethical commentator or columnist is allowed to express his opinions as strongly as he wants to. What he is not at liberty to do is to tamper with the facts that he uses to bolster those arguments. As with any profession, the gamut runs from people who are fundamentally honest, to people who will say anything that they think they can get away with. One thing that keeps a columnist honest is the fact that once he tampers with the truth, he's dead. From then on no one will believe him, and it is his credibility that makes him worth reading. This doesn't mean that he can't make mistakes. If he does make a mistake, his only defense is to admit to it and correct it. Unfortunately, even a very honest commentator can feel so strongly about something, that he may tampers with the truth. While he may figuratively be dead, there may be a number of people who might end up really dead.

The keystone of good reporting is accuracy. A reporter mustn't even bend the truth. He does have the option of reporting, or not reporting parts of an event. This is the way that he can express his bias. Usually, it is the biases of the editor or publisher that win in the end.

So now, when I hear about the horrors in Bosnia, I recall the story about how the Iraqui soldiers in Kuwait took babies out of their hospital incubators in order to take the incubators. It was pure hokum. How much of what we are being told now is true? How much is baloney? I wish I knew.

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