Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2007)
For many reasons, this is a really good educational book for those who are interested in journalism. It’s mainly about the responsibilities of journalists to their audience. It discusses the importance of verification, transparency about sourcing, and the journalist’s duty to conscience. The whole book is about journalistic ethics, how to apply ethics and what elements make journalism of value.
There is a lot of depth and detail that I won’t attempt to summarize. It mentions famous incidents from recent years such as the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal at the New York Times (1), as well as inspiring historical events such as coverage of the Pentagon Papers (2). One of the points the authors make is that journalism is not about pretending to be neutral or detached (3). Journalism is about being independently minded (4). Truth is the real standard and this is the journalist’s first obligation (5).
The entertainment and propaganda-and-lies markets should be kept separate from journalism. Journalists have responsibilities to the truth market. Consumers need truth and they need good journalism. There is a clear example of this when a Chicago reporter, Carol Marin (6)(7), was praised by the public when she resigned from her job when the employer wanted to bring in Jerry Springer. Her audience followed her to her new job at a different station.
Guarding Against Tyranny?
I completely agree that one of the main functions of journalism should be to guard against tyranny:
“History has taught us by bloody experience what happens to a society in which the citizens act on the basis of self-interested information – whether it is the propaganda of a despotic state or the edicts of a sybaritic leisure class substituting bread and circuses for sovereignty.” (8)
The problem of the mainstream media failing to fulfill this function remains unresolved. The book presents warnings about totalitarianism and emphasizes the role of citizens in challenging the media (9). Very infrequently do they dilute these points as they do in this passage:
“The public continues to be troubled.… But it would be an overstatement to suggest the country has reached some new crisis point…” (10)
On the contrary, it is obvious to some of us that the U.S. is in the midst of an unparalleled constitutional crisis, reported on by some mainstream journalists to their credit but effectively downplayed or not understood by the media as a whole:
- The events surrounding 9/11, and the failure of the press to question the official version of events. (11)
- The war in Afghanistan which the press failed to question. (12)
- The war in Iraq with its casualties and false justifications which the mainstream media promoted. (13)
- Threats against Iran with false pretexts (14)
- The Military Commissions Act (2006) and its attacks on civil liberties (15)
- The PATRIOT Act (2001) and Domestic Security Enhancement Act (2003) – both major attacks on civil liberties (16), not to mention questionable presidential executive orders, torture apologetics, and policies of “extraordinary rendition”.
- The recent proposal from presidential candidate Barack Obama for civilian national service. (17)
- Proposals by Obama for increased global government, shifting accountability even further away from the people. (18)
Mainstream journalists continue to let the people down, continues to let distortions pass, and continue to fail to emphasize the seriousness of these attacks on our freedoms and constitutional structures.
Because of the mainstream media’s failures, it is left to alternative media who are willing to consider so-called conspiracy theories about the criminality of government. Most professional journalists, because of fear or common prejudices, do not allow themselves to do their job properly and will continue to fail to do their jobs of exposing patterns of government corruption and imperialist motivations.
Most journalists and many in the public are philosophically incapable of opposing the state and seeing governments as they really are. They blindly believe in the theory that the U.S. (or Canadian) government actually represents its people, that the government is whatever people believe it is, that it basically stands for good and only makes occasional mistakes.
By now, there should have been dozens of exposes equivalent to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate investigations. Instead we are all going to play the two-party game of trying to choose between Senators Obama and McCain. Many are going to support Obama as a response to Bush’s policies despite the fact that Obama has indicated he will carry on pro-war policies (19) and has proposed shocking “national service” and globalist policies to the American people (17)(18). Even though McCain and Obama believe in the same things, Americans are set to blindly follow the media’s two-party coverage into this hopeless future of more control over their lives, more taxes, more war and less sovereignty.
Journalism and Libertarian Ideology
On the positive side, the traditional American small-r republican doctrine presented in this book is very good for the freedom movement to understand and appreciate. The authors say that journalism is a theory of information that sustains the idea that “people can govern themselves.” (20) Libertarian ideology is also about the idea of self-government.
The first amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” (21)
Also among the fundamental freedoms listed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:
“freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;” (22)
Words on paper are not enough to protect us, but this powerful tradition of journalistic freedom helps us to ground libertarianism in history and connect with non-libertarians. Just like habeas corpus (the requirement that prisoners be brought before a judge), freedom of the press is an example of a very deliberate and developed tradition that helps protect real people from real threats to their freedoms and rights. At the same time, libertarians develop theory to better understand the principles: self-ownership, non-aggression, property rights etc.
The real significance and intention of freedom of speech is the right to express dissent from the government. It also means the right and responsibility to report on and challenge the institutions of power.
This function of journalism should apply to all citizens who participate to some degree in news and information through their blogs, podcasts, forum postings, email or letter writing – with some people called “journalists” doing a more professional job than others.
Along the same lines, let’s take that one step further! Just as we do not leave journalism to journalists, the function of government and politicians should not be left to politicians and parties! Voting for a “representative” who is unable to represent a citizen’s actual views is not good enough. In Canada, every adult citizen has a constitutional right to run for office. Take that to the logical conclusion. Every citizen’s voice should be heard on everything that matters to them!
Even though I believe it is just a myth that “we are the government”, we should turn that myth around and take advantage of it. We should overrule and undermine the credibility of the system that continues to treat us as subjects. As an alternative to running for office, motivated individuals should build up a parallel movement of direct representation through virtual assemblies in order to restrain government power and hold governments directly accountable. Those citizens who want to attack freedoms and rights should explain themselves directly to their fellow citizens instead of hiding behind the oligarchic myths of the major political parties and mainstream media.
1. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, 2007. Ch. 10, p. 227.
2. Ibid. Ch. 10, p. 237.
3. Ibid. Ch. 5, p. 118.
4. Ibid. Ch. 5, p. 119.
5. Ibid. Ch. 2, p. 36.
6. Ibid. Ch. 10, p. 236.
7. Carol Marin resignation covered in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WMAQ-TV#Jerry_Springer
8. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, 2007. Ch. 11, p. 254
9. Ibid. Ch. 11, p. 253.
10. Ibid. Ch. 11, p. 254
11. See journalist Gore Vidal recommending The New Pearl Harbor by David Ray Griffin at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iF4wmDwVLkc
12. BBC, Sept. 18, 2001, “US ‘planned attack on Taleban’” before Sept. 11, 2001
13. Dennis Kucinich lists the propaganda campaign to promote the invasion and occupation of Iraq at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDZ8seg4Nr4
14. On Iran, see for example http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=viewArticle&code=EVE20070228&articleId=4967
15. Military Commissions Act See http://www.aclu.org/safefree/detention/commissions.html
“In the final hours before adjourning in 2006, Congress passed and the president signed the Military Commissions Act (MCA). In doing so, they cast aside the Constitution and the principle of habeas corpus, which protects against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment. They also gave the president absolute power to designate enemy combatants, and to set his own definitions for torture.”
17. Chicago Tribune, July 3, 2008, “Is U.S. ready to serve?”
“We will ask Americans to serve…”
“…We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.”
He said he would make federal assistance conditional on school districts establishing service programs and set the goal of 50 hours of service a year for middle school and high school students.
18. NPR Transcript of Senator Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin on July 24, 2008
“But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more – not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.”
19. “Greens warn that antiwar Americans will waste their votes if they vote for Obama, citing his positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East”, July 28 2008
20. Ch. 11, p. 255
21. U.S. Bill of Rights
22. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
July 30th, 2008