Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Ghost of John Peter Zenger

I have had this idea kicking around in my head for a couple of days, and just haven't sat down to get it out on paper...make that on screen. Then this evening, my husband remarked that this is the longest I have gone without blogging for a while. True.

news of yesterday helped encapsulate what I have been thinking. It all began when the Coast Guard held one of its routine training exercises with speed boats on the Potomac. They were practicing how they would conduct high speed chases and interdiction of suspicious watercraft. The exercise was so low key they did not think other agencies--e.g. the FBI--needed to be given advance warning.

For whatever reasons, they were using open channels of communication, and that's how the brouhaha unfolded. Here's the opening of the Washington Post story:

"SUSPICIOUS VESSEL IN DC/Coast Guard fires on boat on Potomac River," said CNN's "breaking news" headline at 10:05 a.m. Friday.

Six minutes later, an "URGENT" bulletin flashed from Reuters, which attributed the information to CNN.

That prompted Fox News to report that shots had been fired, citing Reuters as its source. "Report: Coast Guard Fires on Suspicious Boat in Potomac," Fox News's headline said.

In other words--CNN picked up from a police scanner a report that they then repeated on the air, without any other confirmation, that suspicious boats were spotted on the Potomac (get it...near the Capitol including the White House). Then Fox News picked up CNN's story, and repeated it. And so on...the game was on.

Here's what has been buzzing around in my head. We have gone from having a free and unfettered press reporting on news to having a free and financially fettered press reporting on the STORIES of news that they hear. Less and less ground work is being done, and subsequently fewer facts are being gathered and reported.

Tune in to the 24 hour cable "news" cycle and what you are most likely to get is unbridled opinion being passed off as news. We don't hear what is happening; we hear what people THINK about what they THINK is happening. So if they are wrong, no matter--they still have an opinion.

More than two years ago, I wrote here
in praise of John Peter Zenger. He would be appalled. When he was tried back in 1735 for the charge of libel, he is reported to have said "No nation, ancient or modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves."

To which, I can only add--well said. But the irony is not so much that the freedom to express ourselves is being taken away, as we are giving up on it. Around the country, newspapers are dying, not because of censorship, but because of falling readership, and the inability to make ends meet.

We have more access to news channels via cable and satellite, and less actual information being imparted. Is there anyone out there who really wants to read more about Michael Jackson's strange life and even stranger death? Is there anyone who doesn't know who Jon and Kate are?

But if I were to run down some of the stories covered on BBC news over this week, I would venture that most Americans have no idea about these stories. Yet, they reveal far more human need. Test yourself--here's the
cover page for the BBC Africa stories.

Or, if you prefer, here's the
cover page for the Asia-Pacific stories.

My point is that what we are fed as news in the U.S. leaves us woefully under-informed. We are hyper-aware of threats to our country--after all, the Coast Guard exercise occurred on September 11, no doubt a factor on CNN's jumping to pick up the story. And we are lulled into paying way too much attention to stories that should NEVER be on the news--e.g. Jon and Kate. We have little if any awareness of the larger world. And we have come to mistake opinion for fact.

The on-going health debate sadly illustrates that. There are no death panels in the proposed bill. But ask the average person on the street and you may get a yes, no or maybe answer. Then your local news will report that people are still confused about this issue. WHAT ISSUE, I feel like screaming.

Thinkers far more capable of addressing this issue than I have written about this phenomena. While I pride myself on being well-informed, I am not sure I have the stomach to read their analyses. I will, however, keep my subscription to the New York Times; I will listen to NPR for decent news coverage; I will read BBC on-line; and I will NEVER EVER watch national "news" coverage on FoxNews.


Anvilcloud said...

I would tend to substitute a word that almost sounds like Fox, if I were to say Fox News.

Jayne said...

Isn't it the truth! I am right there on your soap box with you Donna! Just this morning, in our local paper, where they publish small "rants" someone sent one in which said, "If the health plan is so great, why does it exempt the President, Congress, and the Senate?" HUH? It's almost as if no one really LISTENS to the donkey's mouth any longer, but relies on someone to interpret what the donkey said as gospel. It makes me CRAZY! And FOX News? Don't get me started.

KGMom said...

As if to add to my rant, today's closing paragraph in Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac says this, writing about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton:
"In the months that the Lewinsky scandal was dominating the press, the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed, killing 224 people and injuring more than 4,500, and soon linked to Osama Bin Laden. During this same time period of the Lewinsky scandal, Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela, and Iraq announced that it would shoot down any U.S. or British planes patrolling the country's no-fly zones, the Euro was established, and the Chinese government announced that it was restricting Internet usage."

Point made.

Ginnie said...

I agree with you whole heartedly. The "spin" that is put on news changes depending upon the channel you watch. I've gotten where about all I will watch is C-Span... and Fox News is a definite no-no !

Ruth said...

I cannot bear to watch CNN and have never seen Fox News (we don't get it with our cable) BBC is my news site of choice. We get it on TV too.
The news we hear about the opposition to Health Care reform and the controversy about Obama's school speech leaves me speechless!!

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

American news channels are more interested in entertaining than news broadcasting.

The BBC is unique among news organizations. Unlike the US the British had a real Empire so that Brits came to know places around the World intimately which has made them interested in what goes on in the World. The BBC has as its role that of educator of what goes on in the World.

One cannot rely upon one source of news to be well informed of the events of the World.

I wonder how many people in the US know where Zimbabwe is?

Even in American news I find the most frustrating way it is presented is that they make things up as filler of time. When the facts are finally out they often do no stop repeating the conjectures they have been indulging in.

possumlady said...

Oh, don't get me started. Being a news junkie I get increasingly frustrated by the lack of detailed information. And on foreign news? Hah, unless hundreds of people die somewhere, there is no foreign news.

That said, the Coast Guard REALLY screwed up. To have a training exercise on 9/11, right below the bridge where the President had just moments before driven across to get to the Pentagon...and not informing any federal or local police this was going on...IDIOTS!!

Climenheise said...

When we moved to Manitoba, I thought we would get news that was less parochial. If anything, I discovered, CBC is worse than the American networks. They do have good news shows that cover some news in depth; but the basic news on the radio is aggressively Canadian-oriented, with little awareness that the rest of the world exists.

I like most things about Canada better than in the USA, but I listen to NPR and read the BBC, and turn to CBC for lcoal news only.

As a Western Canadian, I notice also that CBC sounds like the official organ of the Liberal Party. My own politics are Green; but I like some effort to treat all subjects with some fairness.

End of rant!

NCmountainwoman said...

Amen! We read the newspapers Online. For most of our news we listen to NPR and BBC. In the evening we watch Jim Lehrer. BTW: Have you noticed that the women on Jim Lehrer actually understand the subjects they are covering? And the actually report NEWS and ask reasonable questions? And they aren't necessarily beautiful with long legs and short skirts? AND, they have never once mentioned Jon and Kate?