Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't blame the 24-hour news cycle

On the weekend I read an opinion piece examining how the media reported the death of Edward (Ted) Kennedy — the writer claimed to be taking a view "through the lens of North American journalism." After working for almost four decades in the photojournalism business, some of that time with the author of the opinion piece, I can say that I don't know what lens Mr. Cornies is referring to.

The point of his column was that today nothing is out of bounds when it comes to reporting the news. Journalists are no longer discreet. Why? The author sees lots of reasons: "The relentless appetite of the 24-hour news cycle among information-hungry media outlets, the proliferation of social media, the rise of a more shrill and less genteel political discourse, and the rupturing of the once-impenetrable walls of media institutions . . ."

Maybe he's right, maybe not, but I'll tell you one thing: The writer, Larry Cornies, is still genteel. There will be no overt mud slinging from Mr. Cornies. He writes that Joseph Kennedy, the father of John, Robert, and Ted, was "a successful businessperson and ambassador who built a fortune by the age of 30 . . . "

He mentions that old Joe Kennedy "groomed his sons for political life" and that they were "made in their father's image." In the context of Larry's writing, it sounds very positive. Dad was a success and his boys were just like dad.

All may be true but the whole truth, the complete, unvarnished story, is very different. John Kennedy was a womanizer, Robert Kennedy has similar stories tarnishing his memory, and even Larry allows that Ted had the scandal of the Mary Jo Kopechne buried in a very shallow grave in his past. The Kennedy boys followed in their father Joe's footsteps — all were womanizers.

Joseph Kennedy was brazen in his escapades with other women. In 1928 he had an almost public affair with Hollywood's Gloria Swanson. Rose, Joe's wife, handled the humiliating situations by pretending they weren't happening or she blamed the press. In Rose's memoir, written by Robert Coughlin with her approval, she is quoted as saying that gossip and slander were "the price one pays for being in public life."

With no 24-hour news deadlines, no Internet, none of the stuff Larry Cornies lists, the press was apparently reporting Joseph Kennedy's indiscretions to the dismay of his long-suffering wife. Nothing genteel here.

Why did the media give his son, John, a free pass? Why did they refuse to report John Kennedy's wrong doings. I am sure Rose Kennedy would not argue as does Mr. Cornies that it was because of the ". . . self-imposed constraints that had shaped their earlier formality and deference." The look-the-other-way reporting on the JFK White House reveals an endemic media blight. Even the media label for the Kennedy's time in office, Camelot, is tainted by this blight.

After the war in Vietnam ended in defeat, it was not just American legislators whose lies were laid bare. It was also the American press. We now know the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a creation of the U.S. government to give it a reason to go to war. Why did we not know it then? It was because of the media blight was hiding the truth.

President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara claimed the air strikes against the North Vietnamese were “retaliation” for the “unequivocal,” “unprovoked” attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on U.S. destroyers “on routine patrol” in “international waters.” As the war in Viet Nam escalated more lies were told but the media remained on side.

How did all these lies escape detection? Time Magazine rewrote some of their correspondents' stories when the stories did not mesh with the government's version of events. Time deferred to the government Time and Time again — issue after issue.

At a newspaper seminar I met a famous-in-the-media journalist, a speaker at the seminar, who had reported from Saigon. He told me that he and others in the field groaned when they saw General Westmoreland gracing the cover of Time. They saw this not as news but as a PR coup for the military. The Saigon-based correspondents and the New York rewrite desk were detailing two different wars, he said.Today we know the reporters in the field had it right and much of what we read at the time had it so very, very wrong.

During that war, now decades past, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann argued for greater care, greater discrimination in killing. He is quoted as saying to David Halberstam, Saigon correspondent for the New York Times, "The best weapon for killing is the knife . . . the next best is a rifle. The worst is an airplane, and after that the worst is artillery."

Vann went on to argue that pilots and artillery commanders needed easy targets, and small villages were easy targets. Unfortunately, the possibility of hitting a VC stronghold was much less than that of killing innocent peasants.

Fast forward to today, to Afghanistan, where U.S. planes, including a B-52 bomber and an AC-130 helicopter gunship, dropped seven 2,000 lb. bombs killing dozens of Afghan women and children and injuring scores more. Did the story receive strong play in the U.S. media today? Or were these deaths explained away with claims strikingly similar to those used decades ago during the war in Vietnam?

In the words of a colonel from the Viet Nam era, Colonel Daniel Boone Porter, we are still ". . . killing the people we are are here to help."

Curious to know what images from the war in Afghanistan were being withheld from the American people, and Canadian for that matter, I searched the Internet. I soon stopped. The images were heart breaking. I cannot describe the horror I found. War is hell and the images were worse than anything  had every imagined. I now have a small window was causes military people involved in the violence of war to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you want to know the identity of the Argentinian mistress — Maria Belen Chapur — of Governor Mark Sandford, CNN is ready to inform you and inform you again and again and yet again. The death of Michael Jackson is such big news that it pushes everything first to the back burner and then right off the stove. The relentless appetite of the 24-hour news cycle is satisfied with quantity and not quality.

It is not the last shards of constraint, self-censorship and inhibition that are gone, but what we are seeing is media  maturity under attack. I do so wish you had been right, Larry. (See Addendum at bottom of post.)

A few important additional comments. Larry Cornies was an editor with The London Free Press for years. He is a smart man and a gentleman. When it came time to publish this post I fell back on the expert assistance of an old friend and retired newspaper editor — a man very much like Larry Cornies. My friend caught a number of embarrassing mistakes in my spelling, my word usage, and my grammar. (And I, of course, corrected those and made more.)

It takes a lot of courage to put one's thoughts down on the printed page. You just know that someone, like me, will take a different tack.

The editorial ranks have been thinned at most newspapers. That's sad. Even editors can use an editor. A good editor might have warned Larry Cornies that his take on the history of the media was a view seen through rose coloured glasses.


Today, Monday, the Huffington Post carried a story saying, "Last week McChrystal (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan) said troops "must change the way that we think, act and operate" in newly released counterinsurgency guidance. McChrystal hopes to instill a new approach in troops to make the safety of villagers the top priority.

McChrystal said the supply of fighters in the Afghan insurgency is "essentially endless." This is the reason violence continues to rise. He called on troops to think of how they would expect a foreign army to operate in their home country "among your families and your children, and act accordingly."

In the coming weeks and months I may take a look at some of the myths so prevalent in the media and the buzzwords that accompany these myths.


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