Editor’s Viewpoint: What will we have to say when the news goes away?
When former United States Secretary of State Dean Rusk leaned forward and peered into my eyes, I knew that I had touched a nerve with my question concerning freedom of the press. “As far as I’m concerned, the only freedom they have is the freedom to lie,” he said.
Rusk served under Kennedy and Johnson during the Cuban Missile Crisis and part of the Vietnam War. I met him when I was a student at the University of Georgia, when he was a guest in a speech communications class. In his response, I heard the years of frustration that likely had soured his opinion of the press after reading too many published reports containing inaccurate or incomplete information.
While there isn’t an excuse for bad reporting, no reporting is worse, as shown in a story last month in Bell, Calif., a city that doesn’t have a newspaper. If it had one, a reporter might have noticed that three of the city’s top officials had combined salaries of about $1.6 million, and four out of five of its part-time city council members were paid $100,000 each. Instead, Bell’s residents had to learn about their own mugging from the Los Angeles Times.
Though the press is going to make mistakes, there are many sources for news to provide balance. However, that has led to another, larger problem, best illustrated through another story, this time in Newark, N.J. After the city council rejected his plan to issue bonds on a Municipal Utilities Authority he would create, the mayor announced several cuts in the budget, including wiping out funds to buy toilet paper for city buildings. News outlets, including us, picked up the story, and most used the toilet paper cuts in the lead.
The mayor knew that the press would use toilet paper prominently in the story, because it isn’t beneath them (or him) to emphasize a relatively unimportant point to grab the readers’ attention. To remind us journalism is a business, Charmin and Scott tissue ads appear on the Google News search results page for “Newark toilet paper.” And, being a business, journalism is in competition with a host of bloggers, and television and radio political pundits weaving news facts into opinions without the burdens of objectivity or original reporting. It is disconcerting that Americans are learning current events through opinions rather than news organizations, and then showing their lack of trust in newspapers by not reading them and turning to television news, which is an oxymoron. Ironically, without reporting, bloggers would have nothing to blog, and commentators would be left to discuss the latest rumors and innuendoes.
Yes, journalism is imperfect as are most institutions in America. Rather than designing this country, the founding fathers only gave us a few basic and important principles, like freedom of the press, to help those who followed.
As for my response to Rusk’s opinion of the press, I asked, “Considering all the press systems operating in any other country in the world, which one would you prefer?” He pulled back and said, “Ours, of course.”
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.