The Cowardice Endemic to Professional Journalism
Bill Quick


Well, there’s not really anything new here. What Glenn is pointing to is the Achilles heel of all “professional” journalists who like to fellate themselves with the notion that they speak truth to power. In fact, they are terrified of power.

From Glenn’s cite:

Censorship in China: How Western Journalists Censor Themselves | New Republic

he visa question has insidious ways of sowing the seeds of self-censorship,” Dorinda Elliott, the global affairs editor at Condé Nast Traveler, wrote on ChinaFile last month. “I am ashamed to admit that I personally have worried about the risk of reporting on sensitive topics, such as human rights lawyers: what if they don’t let me back in?” Elliott is a longtime China hand who worked as Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief in the late 1980s. “My decision to not write that story—at least not yet—proves that I am complicit in China’s control games,” she continued. “After all, there are plenty of other interesting subjects to pursue, right?”

Say, does that sound familiar? It does to me.

Accuracy In Media – Weekly Column – Media Muzzled On Iraq — But By Whom?

Another Times’ star, columnist Thomas L. Friedman, seconded Burns’ critique. Appearing on the Charlie Rose show, Friedman reportedly said that the last ten years of media coverage of Iraq was hardly “a shining example of American journalism.” Friedman agreed that the media failed to cover Iraqi atrocities in order to get and keep visas and access. He thinks, “the press has something to answer for” on this story.

Burns concluded, “there is corruption in our business,” and he urged his colleagues to “get back to basics.” But the real censors in the Iraq case seem to have been the network executives and newspaper editors who cared more about maintaining a “presence” in Baghdad than truth or accuracy in their reporting. What does that say about the reporting from the capitals of other regimes, like Cuba, Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia?

And that is the deadly weakness for “professional” reporters: If they lose access to “players” they think they are unable to report the news. And so do their bosses. And, of course, if they can’t report the news that sells the ad space, they don’t get paid. They may be professionals, but they will be unemployed professionals.

There is another aspect to this issue. Modern reporting is entirely “state centered.” By which I mean that the words of some government official are regarded as the gold standard of accuracy. If some man in the street reports seeing something with his own eyes, but a government official denies the event ever occurred, most reporters will take the word of the government official as confirmative, rather than the man in the street’s lying eyes.

A large part of this is laziness. Real reporters used to dig for stories. Now they go to government officials for handouts. And if they can’t get access, they are denied these handouts and hence, in their own minds, have nothing they can report.  Even more damning, this lust for “official confirmation” is nothing more than an extended game of “cover my ass.”   If the government confirms or denies something, the press believes it cannot be blamed for taking this as gospel.  That such confirmation often involves going to the fox to ask about recent raids on the henhouse never crosses their minds.

Here’s an amusing example of the phenomenon:

News Station KTVU Punk’d Over Asiana Aircraft Pilot’s Names (Updated) – Forbes

In what has to be one of the more embarrassing cock-ups in TV news history, KTVU, a Bay Area news station announced on its noon show today that the pilots of the Asiana flight 214 which crashed as it attempted to land at San Francisco airport last Saturday were named, and I am not making this up, “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” and “Bang Ding Ow.”

As it turned out, the reason the station felt no need to take a second look at this is because it was “confirmed” by a representative of the government.  That made it the gold standard, and so they rushed right onto the air with it. 

As an aside, one must consider the major stupidity of all the “pro journalists” involved in this fiasco,  but that is only ancillary to the main problem of state confirmation bias trumping all normal safeguards of journalism.

Now, compare this to the rise of the “amateur citizen journalist.” One of the reasons that people often pay far more attention to online citizen journalism is that many such reports are based on news photographed, videoed, tweeted, facebooked, or blogged from the news scenes themselves, without the intervening screen of government “confirmation.” Such reporting responds to the often-repeated demand to “just report what happened and let me figure it out for myself.”

In some way people are coming to understand that the news as presented by “professional” outlets is managed and massaged for them by people with agendas – the reporters themselves, and the governments they look to for confirmation and interpretation.

The bottom line: Non-professional journalists are denigrated by the pros for not following the methods they themselves are forced to follow. But, in fact, that is exactly the reason why the non-pros often do a much better job of actual reporting.

That, and the fact that they are, in general, braver than the pros. Oh, I know, war correspondents get killed all the time. That’s not at issue. What is at issue is what, and why, and how, war correspondents actually report on the news they cover.  Those reporters may sometimes risk their lives, but they will never, ever risk their access.


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Bill Quick

About Bill Quick

I am a small-l libertarian. My primary concern is to increase individual liberty as much as possible in the face of statist efforts to restrict it from both the right and the left. If I had to sum up my beliefs as concisely as possible, I would say, "Stay out of my wallet and my bedroom," "your liberty stops at my nose," and "don't tread on me." I will believe that things are taking a turn for the better in America when married gays are able to, and do, maintain large arsenals of automatic weapons, and tax collectors are, and do, not.

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