Actions of media actions affect many
Published 4:38 am Monday, May 23, 2005
Late last year I took the opportunity to use this column and discuss what I see as a very real and growing problem in the national media. I am certainly not alone in feeling that this issue – the problem of media bias – has in recent years severely tainted a profession, which in many respects has already lost the confidence of the American people.
To go along with the problem of bias among the television, radio, and print media, there have also been numerous instances where the ethics and integrity of reporters, newspapers, and networks have been called into question. These concerns have been raised as the result of dubious reporting techniques and report content.
Many undoubtedly remember a series of reports which aired on CBS regarding several memorandums purported to cast doubt on President Bush and his service in the Texas Air National Guard. As you will recall, these documents were later proven to be false, and while several producers and reporters at CBS were suspended or fired, they in no way attempted to apologize for their actions and the damage done to the president's character.
Unfortunately, it appears that large segments of the American media have learned absolutely nothing from the controversy over the content and accuracy of their stories. In just the past week, two more examples of flawed journalism have arisen. Tragically, these incidents didn't just affect a person's reputation or tarnish their integrity. In one instance, irresponsible journalism cost lives.
I am confident there are not many Americans who have not by now heard of the incident involving Newsweek magazine. In a small story included in a recent "Periscope" section of that magazine, writers Michael Isikoff and John Barry reported that they had been advised by a confidential source that American troops stationed at the internment facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had shown tremendous disrespect towards their Muslim prisoners and the religion they practiced. Specifically, Isikoff and Barry reported troops had in some instances flushed copies of the Koran down the toilet.
The fallout from this story has been severe. Along with sharp questions about the practices being employed by the United States military, anti-American riots broke out around the world. In Afghanistan, the riots were disastrous and resulted in the deaths of nearly 20 Afghan citizens.
Even in the shadow of these deaths, the editorial staff and management of Newsweek defended the reporting and content of this story. As the truth unfolded that the confidential source for this story was not even accurate, the magazine offered no apology or retraction for the story – an outrageous move when considering their report led to the deaths of innocent civilians.
Ultimately, a one-sentence retraction was issued stating that their story was wrong and that they "wished to extend their sympathies to the victims of the violence."
But no apology was issued, and as of this writing the magazine has accepted no accountability for the consequences of their reporting of this story.
In just the past few days, a second story was aired regarding the judicial nomination process in the Senate. This story – aired by none other than CBS News – included a video clip of former U.S. Solicitor General and Whitewater Special Prosecutor Ken Starr apparently being extremely critical of Senate Republicans and their proposed (and ill-named) "nuclear option."
However, as was the case with the earlier CBS Air National Guard story, this report was also inaccurate. The quote used by Ken Starr was actually selectively clipped from a longer interview. In an e-mail statement issued by Starr after the airing of this report, he said that he was not being critical of the Republicans, but that his quote was "specifically addressed to the practice of invoking judicial philosophy as grounds for voting against a qualified nominee of integrity and experience. I said in sharp language that that practice was wrong."
In this case, I haven't yet seen any sort of apology or retraction from CBS on the content of this report or the use of quotes from Mr. Starr.
My point this week is not to verify the treatment of the prisoners at the Gunatanamo Bay facility, or to say with certainty which side in the judicial debate is correct. Instead, I would simply like to express my strong concerns at the unconscionable abuse of power being displayed more and more frequently by our national media. The media does in fact wield a considerable amount of power; they and in many cases they alone have the ability to inform and advise the public on important local, national, and international events, and how these events impact American citizens.
Ideally, the public should be able to take what they are told by the media at face value as being accurate and truthful. However, that is simply not the case, and recent published surveys demonstrate just how little confidence the public has in the media. In January of this year, the results of a Harris Interactive poll were released, and survey respondents said they did not trust the media by a margin of 62-22. Late last year, the results of a major Gallup poll were also released and stated that just 44 percent of the respondents trusted the media.
The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists emphasizes that journalists – regardless of market or medium – should strive to seek and report the truth, act independently, demonstrate accountability for their actions, and minimize harm.
In the case of the Ken Starr report and – tragically – with the Koran story, some journalists have clearly forgotten (or ignored) the guiding principles of their profession.
My staff and I work for the people of south Alabama. Let us know when we can be of service.
Jo Bonner represents the people of this area in the U.S. H ouse of Representatives.