A common theme when news-people and journalism students got together in a regional convention here last week was that the press does a lousy job of explaining itself.
Judging from the thin coverage the press gave its own meeting, of the Society of Professional Journalists, there's something to that. The Deseret News and the Tribune both gave it one story of seven paragraphs, and both tucked their story down on an inside page, B12.Of course just about every organization would like more attention, and most meetings aren't the thrilling stuff of which Page 1 is made. Nonetheless, it would have been nice if the media had taken this opportunity to show how newspeople speak out for freedom of expression for all the people.
- I WAS PARTICULARLY concerned with the Tribune headline, which said, "Journalist Defends Media Rights." Most people don't give a hoot about the media's rights as such, and the media are getting bashed by a lot of folks who think the press has too many.
The story said a journalist emphasized the need "to make the public understand that it is their First Amendment and that unless they exercise the rights it guarantees, they will lose the laws that made this country different from all others." The rights of the press are the same as those of any other citizen, though the citizenry can look to the press as a sort of trustee of those rights because it is often on the freedom-of-information firing line.
The trade magazine Editor and Publisher picked up this theme early in March when it editorialized that "somehow the public is the `forgotten man.' . . . Very few people have taken the time to acknowledge that the press is surrogate for the public [in the controversy over the pool arrangements and censorship review in the Persian GulfT as well as in all other controversies involving the official control of information." Fred Friendly, the former president of CBS News and an admired press critic, said much the same on a KSL interview with Shelley Thomas and Bruce Lindsay in a Utah visit last Thursday.
At the convention, Ernest J. Ford, the former Salt Lake newsman who is national SPJ president-elect, was back home to tell his colleagues that "if we don't fight for the public's right to know, who will?" and to warn that "if we journalists want to stop the erosion of the First Amendment we need to do a better job of educating the public, to make the public understand it's their First Amendment." His message was particularly appropriate this year, the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
- A HIGHLIGHT of the meetings was a fiery debate in a question-answer period between one of the earlier speakers, Robert Beckstead, who teaches at the War College at Fort McNair, and John Wicklein, an author and former New York Times journalist. Wicklein faulted both the administration and the journalists who went along with controls in the gulf war.
Beckstead held that the public was not denied any essential information about the war and that indeed the military tried to make as much information available as was consistent with national defense aims. Wicklein argued that the government chose to show us that this was a "jim dandy little war" that has no sobering afterthoughts.
While even some newspeople there took issue with some of what Wicklein said, there can be no doubt that some censorship that passed for military security was simply designed to prevent embarrassment to the administration or the military. One example was the military's refusal to allow press coverage at Dover Air Force of the arrival of coffins from the gulf. Though the ban was upheld by a federal judge, does anyone seriously think that it was unrelated to the president's pique over the unfortunate split-screen coverage of bodies from Panama in December 1989, one side showing the coffins, the other the president joking with reporters?
FORD WAS FOR YEARS the leading spokesman in our state for freedom of information issues, the right of the people to inspect public records and attend public meetings. He is one of the few newspeople here who has had extensive experience both in print (as an editor with the Tribune) and broadcasting. He was president of the Utah Society of Professional Journalists and University of Utah chapter and regional SPJ representative. Two years ago he left KSL-TV, where he was managing editor, to become assistant news director of KDFW-TV, the CBS affiliate in a larger market, Dallas-Fort Worth. He will be installed as SPJ president in Cleveland in October.
READING THE LETTERS to the editor has been an education on public attitudes on the war, but depressing. One Salt Laker argued that the media were failing to "put the blame and shame" where it belonged, on Saddam Hussein, and should "stop trying to prolong the war for its news value." (I know of no media that failed to blame Saddam, and the fact is that many of the media, and particularly the networks, were hard hit in the pocketbook in discharging their obligation to cover the war.)
Many readers wanted to know as little as possible about the war's effect on our enemies, one finding it "completely baffling" that Iraqi women should be shown "screaming obscenities." Some agreed with Sen. Alan Simpson, who even after an apology of sorts to Peter Arnett still found the great CNN reporter an Iraqi dupe. Another by a curious but rather common twist of logic classified protesters and dissenters along with "other enemies of freedom and democracy." That goes right along with Simpson's promotion of a Republican National Committee campaign letter-to-the-editor campaign to criticize the media for giving "so much attention to anti-war protesters."
One letter writer didn't like the way the reporters "cross-examined" military briefers.
Apparently a great deal of the public believes the media behave from the basest of motives and that the press should be a conduit for all that the brass and the politicos spout. No wonder the media think they have a job of educating their readers and listeners on what the media's adversarial role has been, can be and ought to be.