It Is a Free Press That Keeps America Free
How is it, then, that so many “main stream” journalists abdicate their responsibility to keep the body politic informed? Is it any wonder that more and more of the general public get their news from “alternative” sources?
By Perry Hicks
I have always loved the “news”. Even as I child I sensed its importance for each evening my father read the old (Washington D.C.) Evening Star just as he watched NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report.
Television brought into our home the day’s events; history in the making such as the civil rights marches, the first manned space flights, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War; the Olympics; and the first human footsteps on the Moon. The news made history relevant for me because I could almost be a direct witness to it. I was living through an important historic time. News both informed and entertained me.
Likewise, news reporters became quite literally heroes- or perhaps I should say- action heroes, as what they did was akin to what police detectives do: seek out the truth for justice sake. Of course, that was back when reporting was merely a trade. Reporters simply covered a story by asking the five questions of “who, what, when, where, and why”.
b: writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or
description of events without an attempt at interpretation c: writing
designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest.
Today, reporters would prefer to be called journalists whose business they would like you to think of as a profession not unlike law or accounting. The truth is that it is still a trade and if it were to cease being merely a trade I would have to liken it more to insurance sales.
For all the harrumphing the press do when their motives are questioned, the problem is that too often news stories become just that; stories. Facts become blatant and therefore ignored. Claims by sources are neither checked nor challenged. And language best found on the editorial pages finds its way onto the front page posing as straight news.
A good example of this is the way environmental groups have been handled by the press. The media has repeated, without question, the claim that we have fewer trees today than before Europeans came to despoil North America. According to the University Of Washington, the actual tree count per acre in the Okanogan and Freemont National Forests are actually closer to 1600 percent: 30 to 60 trees per acre in Columbus’s time compared to an average of 1000, today.
Regardless of how entertaining a writer, or even a radio talk show host, or a television news analyst, journalists love paper trails. When facing the page, microphone, or camera, facts can be more confidently set before the reader or audience if there is credible paper to support it. Indeed, one might argue that the facts are not facts without it. Documents are literally a reporter’s life’s blood. No matter how whacked out a claim may sound to a skeptical reporter, suggest that there are supporting documents and you will get that reporter salivating profusely.
In regard to the Harrison County Development Commission, the Sun Herald’s position in a recent editorial is most curious. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how any paper, much less one with the stature of the Sun Herald, particularly if it is true, give governmental document destruction a pass.
The Sun Herald itself is a historical record. It may have been quite a number of years, but I have spent hours upon hours in that paper’s research library pouring over old newspaper copy in order to understand then current local happenings in context.
Generally speaking, there is only one reason why documents would be destroyed: hide the evidence. For example, in order to avoid putting potentially damaging documentary evidence into the hands of hostile attorneys, corporations have made it a standard practice to discard “unnecessary” or “obsolete” documentation.
Back in the ‘90s, Ford Motor Company sent out to its employees a directive to discard and delete such unnecessary files and documents and require each potentially record keeping employee to certify such at the close of every business year. It would appear that product liability attorneys were scouring Ford Motor Company records for any bit of “evidence” to support their sometimes scurrilous claims.
In this, Ford is not alone. The practice of document destruction has become so prevalent in business, critics worry that it is harming the companies by destroying what is called “corporate memory”. In other words, employees may come and go but documentation gives the company a kind of intellectual continuity.
Government, on the other hand, does not share these concerns. Officials may not be sued for official actions while in office. They may, however, be prosecuted for criminal acts, most of which would fall, generally, under the category of money. Thus, most officials are very careful about maintaining the integrity of their records in order to thwart claims about criminal fiscal malfeasance. After all, it is our tax money.
“Printers are educated in the Belief, that
when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage
of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair
Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they
chearfully serve all contending Writers that pay them well, without
regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.”
In journalism, controversy simply can’t be avoided, nor should it. Opinion pieces are one thing, but straight news stories must present the facts to a given issue. Then, and only then, may the reading, listening, or viewing public make sense of an issue. In nearly every controversy, ground-zero is some kind of government document.
The importance of documentation cannot be over-stressed. With manufacturers, which is the focus of many HCDC activities, ISO 9000 certification is a crowning achievement. ISO (International Standards Organization) 9000 demands a thorough documentation to all of a company’s processes so that the company “documents what it does and does what it documents”. In other words, no shooting from the hip since that is how targets are missed.
If this is so with the job producing businesses that HCDC is supposed to attract, why isn’t HCDC carefully “documenting what it does and doing what it documents”? Without careful, thoughtful planning, and well devised and executed metrics, how could a courted company know the efficacy of HCDC’s claims? For that matter, how could the tax payer know that their money is being wisely spent?
The media is the closest the general public ever gets to a government source document. If the media abdicates its responsibility to study the source documents and query the public officials to how that document is being interpreted, how can they report on it? And if the media does not report on it and report on it accurately, how can the public be so well informed as to make their wishes known to those same officials?
Quite frankly, it is not the media’s job to huddle with government officials and decide public policy for the voter. To borrow a news network slogan, it is the media’s job to “report” and the voter to “decide”. It’s called democracy.
Perry Hicks is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics, and is a former Ford Motor Company technical trainer. He currently works as an Associate Professor of Automotive Technology at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, VA.
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