25 January 2004

Missing in Action - The Press

Common Sense
John Maxwell

One of the great unsolved mysteries of life in the United States of America is the question - "Why do THEY [foreigners] hate us so much?"

It is a question which the US Press finds impossible to answer for the very good reason that the answer to the question has a great deal to do with the US Press itself.

In one of its periodic raids on Michael Jackson's reputation, last week, CNN ran a short clip of Jackson's Man In The Mirror - none too subtly suggesting that Jackson was guilty as charged, of child molestation. As far as CNN and most of the US Press is concerned, Jackson's essential weirdness is sufficient evidence to find him guilty, no doubt, of practically anything of which he may be accused.

In a CNN news clip about Jackson's (misguided?) supporters, one of them shouted that if Jackson, with all his wealth and power and celebrity can't get justice in America, how could any black person?

Ersatz Gentility

But blacks are not the only victims of the US Press. Anyone who is perceived to be out of the mainstream is denied justice. Presidential contender Howard Dean proved last week that he was human, letting off steam after the Iowa primary with an unmannerly yell, which immediately caused commentators and news anchors to ponderously question whether the man was sufficiently balanced to be president of the United States. They have never questioned however, Mr Bush's alleged cocaine abuse or his alcoholism or his reported arrest for drunken driving. No, an utterly ersatz gentility prevents them from pursuing these.

They don't question whether Mr Bush is, as Paul O'Neill says, so disengaged from his job as to be practically absent from important deliberations going on around him, or whether he laid out an agenda for invading Iraq just days after his inauguration. They don't question his reference to "weapons of mass destruction programme activities" in this year's State of the Union speech, though last year they cheered him on when he alleged he had incontrovertible evidence of actual WMD (not "programme activities") on the ground in Iraq. They do not question whether it was his adviser, Karl Rove, who committed the criminal offence of 'outing' a deep undercover CIA operative in revenge for her husband's exposing false White House claims.

The US Press has not seriously considered how it came to be that more than one half of all Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 atrocity.

That fact is the world's greatest monument to the effect of propaganda, originated by the Bush administration and fed to the American people by a supine and corrupt press.

In a country, supposedly served by the world's most vigorous, irrepressible and irreverent Press, how is it possible that a lie of such magnitude can become established fact, persisting to this day?

According to the accounts of the media themselves, they did not believe Saddam was involved in 9/11. The only people who did were apparatchiks attached to the administration, notably Dick Cheney. In fact, even Bush himself was forced to deny that there was any such connection, but the misapprehension persists.


During the Presidential election disaster in Florida three years ago, the US Press was conspicuous by its failure to speak up about the pre- and post-election skulduggery. And when a consortium of media investigated the truth after the event, the results were, like a doctor's mistakes, buried. Most Americans are unaware that Al Gore would have won a majority of the votes in Florida as he did in the United States as a whole.

And, of course, a few years before that, semen stains on Monica Lewinsky's dress were immeasurably more important than the Pope's visit to Cuba.

Functions of the Press

According to everything I have learned in 52 years of journalism, the Press exercises a self-ordained public trust. It is the business of the Press to be truthful, to expose the truth, to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Our responsibility is to the millions without access to the corridors of power.

We are delegates of the people. We are - as I like to put it - the sensory organs of the body politic as well as an important component of the body politic's immune system, listening, watching, tasting, warning, heralding, detecting malignant intrusions and fighting them down. In the circulatory system of the body politic, we are the white corpuscles and the T-cells.

If we don't function correctly, the body politic is endangered by infections, contagions and malignancies and preventable mishaps.

Since we are self-appointed agents, the body politic has few means to restrain us, unless we break the law, by libelling someone, by scandalising the courts or parliament. Apart from that, the Press is just another capitalist institution, responsible only to itself and its shareholders, forgetting that there is a wider constituency of stakeholders whose very lives, welfare and hope of posterity depend on us.

Journalists of the kind I consider myself to be cannot slough off their citizenship at the newsroom door. We are engaged by our humanity, committed to our communities, and ideally, dedicated to the public interest as against any partisan interest or sectoral seductions.

No journalist I have ever met is a eunuch, although a goodly number pretend to be. We cannot simply be spectators, because the very act of observing engages us and changes the thing observed. It will, at least, no longer be secret or private property. The reporter's presence means that the public is present.

Therefore, if we detect lies, misfeasance or malfeasance, it is our duty to bring it to public notice, so that the people, from whom all wealth is derived, can make up their minds what to do to protect their common interest, to work for their survival and their happiness.

This principle means that while journalists may be impartial or non-partisan in support of the public interest, we can never really be disinterested or uninvolved. No-one can lay claim to such godlike qualities. The question is not whether one is committed or to what, but whether one is willing to admit one's bias and one's commitment.

Clearly, as the son of a Baptist parson, I am likely to hold certain positions, even if I am no longer a Baptist or even a Christian. Clearly, as a Jamaican, as a black person, as a journalist, as an old boy of Calabar and Jamaica College, traces of those influences must persist. I did not arise from the head of some goddess, immaculate; I was shaped by my environment and my culture, just like everybody else, every other person, every other journalist, everywhere.

Plastic world, plastic principles

In a world built on plastic, and on the petroleum which is its feedstock, it is tempting to look at facts as fungible; to believe that one fact can easily and acceptably be replaced by another, that the world is a construct of half-truths and that one half-truth is just as good as any other. The problem with half-truths is that they are also half-lies, and just as one cannot be half pregnant or half-free, we need to ensure that our facts are not fungible but that they are stripped of everything that we suspect may be false.

People are at this moment dying in Iraq and other places because of half-truths and outright lies. How can my conscience square with my failure to warn you that you are walking into a trap, that you are putting yourself in mortal peril if you pursue a certain course of action which I KNOW to be dangerous?
Yet, for years between the two Gulf Wars, the US Press knew that eminent capitalists were stealing money from their shareholders and diverting public funds for their own private delectation. For years, that same Press continued to delude the world into believing that the UN sanctions on Iraq permitted the US and Britain to bomb and murder innocent people. And, for most of the last two years, this Press has allied itself to a campaign of untruths and to the actual subversion of the Constitution of the United States in order to assure its own profitability.

For decades, the US Press has carefully avoided telling its constituencies about the real behaviour of their government in Latin America, in the Middle East and in other places. Americans have no real idea of the damage done to their country's reputation by entities such as the United Fruit Company, the Special Forces or those US proconsuls who take it on themselves to ally themselves to the rapacious ruling classes of places like Jamaica, Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba, or The Philippines or Vietnam, or Iraq and Iran.

I don't believe that the majority of world opinion hates the United States or Americans in general. To be in that bag would be to be crazy. But, as thousands demonstrated in Mumbai over the last days, there are many who detest the actions of the US and the malign results on people abroad.

Now, in the US itself, the capitalist revolution has begun to eat its own children, wiping out jobs, degrading pride of workmanship, destroying the community of feeling which existed between craftsmen and their employers.

It is this development which upsets people like Howard Dean and the thousands of 'un-clubbable' people who will vote for him. The American Press, like those it serves so slavishly, needs to cast the beam out of its own eyes before it begins attending to the motes in others.


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