The Future of News

Written May, 2002

Prior to September 11, the gathering and reporting of news was in a dismal state. Particularly  on television which, unfortunately, is where most Western people get their news. Because most of the Western media is driven by a profit motive, news had become entertainment and ad revenue was becoming far more important than content. In much of the rest of the world the news of the day is spread by state-controlled television and newspapers and/or widely unsubstantiated rumor. Many subjects were off limits and political correctness further limited the scope of many news stories. Then came September 11, 2001.

America was struck with a patriotic fervor. For George Bush and Gary Condit, 9-11 was like a rebirth. Suddenly the U.S. forgot that Bush actually received fewer votes than Al Gore and Chandra Levy was moved to a back burner removing a mountain of pressure from Congressman Condit. America and much of the rest of the world was in shock. George Bush, with the help of the anthrax scare, was able to quickly muscle through dramatic new legislation and to galvanize the people of America to take up the cry of the "war on terrorism." Bush's approval rate jumped dramatically. This sudden new found approval and the power attached to it gave the Bush government the ability to seriously question and intimidate anyone who failed to agree with their "war" and their methods of waging it. Some reporters and newscasters lost their jobs, many college professors were quickly chastised for "inappropriate" remarks, and the entire world was told, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists!" Questioning the Bush government about anything was off limits.

Fortunately the public was able to see and hear how Condit attempted to avoid simple questions and came to the conclusion that he was not the person they wanted to represent them in Washington and he was soundly defeated in the recent primary. For Bush the bloom has yet to wear off, as poll after poll claim that he continues to enjoy a high approval rating. While this may be true with the easily mislead public, many members of Congress are openly displaying their displeasure with some of Bush's rhetoric and political moves. The same can be said for many news directors and editors as they look beyond America's shores and find that President Bush is, in fact, not very popular with the rest of the world. They are finding that, while governments appear publicly to support him, the average man on the street doesn't trust him.

All of this brings us to the present and future of news gathering. Fortunately time has a way of healing wounds and causing people to look a little deeper at decisions made in the heat of battle. While it took longer in the U.S., journalists throughout the rest of the world were quick to begin asking questions. Just what is the definition of a terrorist? The Bush government is emphatic that their definition is the only valid version. Furthermore they made it perfectly clear that anyone who fit their wide definition is going to be targeted and crushed. Evil became Bush's new favorite word and Islam became his unstated new target. News gatherers are in a tizzy. Who is right? Who do you believe? Why do some believe that a suicide bomber is a martyr? Are people who are fighting repressive governments, fighting murdering dictators, or  fighting occupying forces really terrorists?

The Bush government, facing some criticism for the FBI withholding information about Arabs using American flight schools prior to 9-11, has begun to release more and more threat possibilities of rumored terrorist attacks. All of this plays right into the hands of the terrorists, who have only to start a rumor to cause new widespread fear. 9-11 was their demonstration project.  Now terrorist groups or individuals need only spread a little information about hypothetical attacks. The attack itself is not necessary, only the imagined threat of one. People are not traveling nor spending money as they did prior to 9-11. Orwell's 1984 talked of keeping citizens in a perpetual state of fright as the people silently supported an endless global war. Today, as Americans wait for the next terrorist attack, their level of fright continues to elevate. People are being urged to report anything "strange." Police are on edge and rights are being trampled in the name of patriotism.

The upshot is a wave of new thinking by news media worldwide. The control of both the media and the news by the Bush government in the Afghanistan region and by Sharon's government in the recent siege of Palestinian territories was a wake-up call for the media. East and West both started looking for answers. In the East several news agencies are able to operate without the restraint of government. The growing internet has opened new doors for many people, both in and out of media. There has been an increase in concerns and stories about the suffering of people. Stories about the reasons people don't wish to tow the mark of their respective leaders. Real human rights violations have come to the forefront. Many Eastern governments are confused as to just how to deal with fanatics, be they Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, or other religious and ethnic groups. These same governments are equally confused as to how to deal with and control the influx of Western journalists who are invading their countries like locusts.

Here in the West the media has been a little slower to wake up, but thanks largely to WorldLink TV, PBS,  and NPR, news gathering has taken on a new look. Americans are getting their first real look at the plight of people in many developing nations. Journalists are not quite so threatened by Bush's McCarthy-like tactics. They are asking questions and looking at options. The failure of Enron, coupled with some questionable accounting by Anderson and settlements by the likes of Merril Lynch, have opened the eyes of journalists who were only too happy to believe the rose colored financial picture painted by Wall Street's analysts before September 11. Even without 9-11, the American economy has been in a constant state of flux recently. The number of people who have lost their retirement or college funds is staggering and the media must shoulder part of the blame. They continued to hype a sick market rather than seriously question the rosy predictions from investment bankers who only wanted to feather their own nests. Ad revenue got in the way of good journalism.

Many dot.com news sites on the internet bit the dust as the economic woes of the West unfolded. However, new ones have sprung up and they are having a positive effect on more traditional media. A few years ago much of traditional media looked down their noses at internet news gatherers. They were considered uneducated geeks and many other things, but certainly not journalists. That has changed since 9-11. While some might not be college educated "journalists," they are providing a wealth of material for the traditionalists who are now embracing the internet rather than ignoring it. Light weight digital still and video cameras allow news stories to be broadcast almost instantly from remote corners of the world. 

For fifty years Americans were led down the anti-Cuban, anti-Castro path. Then along came former President Jimmy Carter who recently spent a week in Cuba. His historic trip forced Western  media to take a serious look at Cuba and her people. America has received more information about Cuba in one week than the government had been able to shield them from for 50 years. Equally, the Cuban people were treated to a large dose of reality when Carter addressed them in Spanish. His speech, which was subsequently published in the state run Cuban newspaper Granma, was an eye opener as he talked about free elections, human rights, free speech, and political prisoners. The media in America and Cuba have gone along with their government views for so long, but that appears to be changing. Americans no longer support the embargo and overwhelmingly agree that if we can normalize relations with Vietnam, we can certainly do the same for our Cuban neighbors. At the same time American human rights abuses are coming to light in the reprehensible treatment of the Afghan "detainees" being held at Guantanamo.

Human rights abuses have been tolerated by American governments for many years. If 9-11 had not happened, are there many journalists who really believe that the Taliban would not still be running Afghanistan? Numerous dictators were supported by the U.S. simply because they professed to being against leftists. Thousands upon thousands were killed by militaries trained at the infamous School of the Americas where American teachers taught them to literally be terrorists. Almost every country in Central and South America has suffered with American supported human rights abuses. One has only to look at the repressive governments of Penochet in Chile and Fugimori in Peru to see how America's support allowed them to terrorize their own people for many years. Fortunately 9-11 has given terrorism and human rights abuses a new look. Stories that were swept under the carpet for years are being dusted off and given the ink they so richly deserve.

In Mexico where the PRI ruled with an iron hand for 71 years, President Vincente Fox has rekindled the hopes of the Mexican people for some truth and justice. Corruption used to be the only way to get things done. Journalists were routinely paid to place stories in newspapers and most newspapers operated at the whim of the PRI. Fox's election has brought about sweeping change within the government, but more importantly, within the media in Mexico. While still confusing to read, Mexico's newspapers are tackling stories that were completely off limits two years ago. In a quantum leap forward, Mexico recently passed a broad based Freedom of Information Law which will give citizens and the media access to information  about the activities of the executive branch.

There is a new focus worldwide about the use of the death penalty; a method of retribution used by only a handful of nations. Major news programs have done reports about the death penalty, the drug laws and initiatives like California's "Three Strikes" law which is putting many non-violent offenders behind bars for life while violent offenders are often released in 6 - 8 years. If there are to be changes made in these areas, they will have to come with the help of the media by presenting more in-depth and balanced reports which ask hard questions about the actual effects of these laws. Have they been put in place due to knee jerk reactions? Are there alternative methods which could be used? Has the entire "Law and Order" platform that most politicians adhere to gone too far in stripping freedoms and rights from the citizens?

With President Bush's recent trip to Europe and Russia, some of the Western media have shown more than mere snippets of the protests against Bush. Many of the reports point out that the protests are aimed more at the man then at his country. Most of the rest of the world views George Bush as a hawk who will use any means available to push his agenda. Media in other countries are probing the reasons why America refuses to support and adopt many United Nations proposals such as global warming and arms proliferation including the use of landmines.

Travelers worldwide are beginning to question the tight measures of security instituted post 9-11. Editorials have begun to point out that the great bulk of the so-called terrorist activity has been carried out by male Islamic fanatics who range in age from 17 to 40, and not  by 60 year old grandmothers or babies in arms. The media is slowly probing the need for such draconian security means, much as they are probing the sentencing laws mentioned above. The media is finding out that people want real, verifiable news and not news "shows." Television news programs have taken on a new look with greater in-depth stories and fewer sound bites. 

A number of longtime Congressmen and Senators have announced their retirement which will open the door for some new and younger blood in Washington. With elections looming in November, the media should be gearing up to cover the elections from a different perspective.  Candidates should be questioned more on issues and not party lines.  Candidates should be probed for their ideas on changing the attitudes in Washington. As the definition of a terrorist is up for grabs, so goes the definition of what a politician should be and this is healthy for America.

Will this attitude last? Will journalism return to the heady days of truth that brought the Vietnam War to a close? Before 9-11, I would have bet not, but maybe, just maybe the pen will prove to be mightier than the sword. As the world becomes more global, the media must become equally global. American media must be particularly vigilant that they don't allow themselves to become mouthpieces of the Bush government. They need to temper American needs and views with those of the rest of the world. It will take a lot of courage from news directors and editors, but the future of news is much brighter since the world was brought to America's doorstep on that tragic September 11. 

An edited version of this article is posted at  Online Journalism Review - http://www.ojr.org/ojr/future/1023942126.php

July 21, 2004 - Since I wrote The Future of News in June of 2002, America media has, if anything, gone downhill. Until just recently major news outlets were sweeping much of the news under the carpet. The pressure to bend to the will of the Bush government was just too high. Then, like Nixon’s tapes, the Iraq Prison scandal surfaced and it was like being hit by a two by four for the media.

Suddenly truth began to surface. In addition to the Bush government routinely abusing human rights, it has become more and more apparent that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair lied their way into the current Iraq War. On May 26, 2004 the New York Times apologized for the papers’ poor reporting on all of the information leading up to the beginning of the Iraq War. They questioned why they had so blatantly accepted the claims made by the Bush government to justify their first strike incursion into Iraq in February, 2003.

It’s a shame that it took human torture to wake them up, but finally the American media are joining the rest of the world in looking at the justification for the Iraq War. Even the Bush leaning Supreme Court woke up with their recent decisions granting some rights to the “detainees” being held by the Bush government in prisons around the world.

Orville Schell has written an excellent article, Why the Press Failed. It can be found here: http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=1543

For another viewpoint see: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0315-11.htm