I's news in the Internet media whenever those in the mainline media recognize the magnitude of their failure to honestly serve the American public. On Sunday, Thomas Shapley of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer acknowledged that "for a long time no watchdogs slept so soundly during the initial Wenatchee (Washington child sex-ring) prosecutions as those of us in the media." This case has now joined the Little Rascals case in North Carolina and the McMartin preschool case in California, all largely based on "evidence" generated by a now discredited counseling technique known as "recovered memory." In Wenatchee, innocent parents are still in jail, and children who were never abused are locked up in foster homes, their families destroyed, while Gov. Gary Locke
twiddles his prosecutorial thumbs and refuses to stop the madness.
It would be easy to kick Mr. Shapley around for the next couple of paragraphs, outline one or two destroyed lives that real reporting would have saved, and finally to praise the newspaper for its courageous apology and newfound wisdom. Unfortunately, it wouldn't
be quite accurate. The problem in the mainline press is the Mr. Shapleys who inhabit it. Monday morning they will go back to work, lament to one another how "hindsight is always 20/20," and return to cranking out government-generated press-releases. Mr. Shapley acknowledges as much, in mentioning an earlier incident:
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That was the greatest tragedy of Ruby Ridge. Members of
the media allowed the powers that be to use their own
prejudices (in that case against right-wingers, racists
and religious fundamentalists) to cast an inaccurate
public image. ... Hey, who cared about some neo-Nazi
gunrunner in Idaho, and who would care about a bunch of
child-raping sex perverts at some dirt-floor church on
the other side of the Cascades? For a long time it didn't
occur to us that these people might not be any of those
things. Why? Because the cops, the FBI, the prosecutors -
- the good guys -- told us that's what they were.
This technique works on the Mr. Shapleys of the world because they are no different than the rest of us: They see and hear what they want to. Only their vision of the future is different. Being closet authoritarians, they don't question the authorities' explanations.
Being politically liberal, they don't question other liberals' underlying assumptions and plans. Being agnostic and atheist, they disparage people of faith and (especially) the Christian religion.
Being college-educated and well-connected members of corporate America, they disparage small businessmen and women who have to make it on their own, amid a sea of government-generated regulations. Fearing crime and ignorant of firearms, they embrace the authoritarian lie of gun-control. Jealous of the freedom to abort their mistakes, they embrace "choice" and attack those with an honest and heartfelt concern for 36 million such "choices" that have each ended an innocent life.
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The problem is, the Mr. Shapleys of the world aren't us, the media's consumers. Those inside the media have a larger obligation to the rest of us. Joe Sixpack and Chardonnay Cherie are free to indulge their petty prejudices and shut their minds to the truth.
In so doing, they harm no one but themselves. It is not so, Mr. Shapley, with you: The press in America is all that stands between freedom and slavery.
To adapt an old observation, journalism is too important to be done by journalists. The notion that a journalism degree qualifies anyone to report the news should be instantly discredited by one look at the product. In commenting on journalism school education,
John Ullman (The Reporter's Handbook: An Investigator's Guide to Documents and Techniques) writes:
You can, of course, get by quite nicely without this
[real-world] knowledge. Neither your bosses nor your
peers, by and large, have it either. Nor, for the most
part, do they believe you need it to perform your job
adequately. ... We ask only whowhatwherewhenhowandwhy,
confident that people will tell us the truth and tell it
completely. If there is a conflict, we only get quotes
from the "other side," seriously endeavoring all the
while to make the story somehow balanced. Let the reader
decide which side is truthful, it's not our job ...
Not your job, Mr. Shapley? Ask Mr. Weaver and his children, who lost their wife and mother. Ask the Branch Davidians in jail, who saw their family, friends, and children burned alive at Waco. Ask the military pathologists who ruined their careers to tell you that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's head has every appearance of a perfectly round .45 caliber bullet hole in the top of it. Ask the right-wing crazies who think the FBI and the BATF know more about the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City than they told. Ask the parents at Wenatchee.