NEW YORK – What is the job of the news media? To report the news. Everyone agrees about that. But some well-intentioned, self-imposed ethical guidelines that members of the news media take for granted are getting in the way of the industry’s fundamental mission: telling everything they know to a public whose right to know is sacred.
You know journalists have lost their way when they cheer the arrest and potential extradition to the United States of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange. Any of us could be next; we should be circling the wagons. Yet they insist on focusing on such inanities as Assange’s personality, his “arrogance” and even his cat. Some even approve.
The other day National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” covered the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Everyone over age 40 remembers what happened: Suffering from depression, chronic pain and opiate addiction, the singer put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off.
It’s one of the most famous suicides ever. NPR chose to be coy about it, mostly referring to Cobain’s “death” rather than his “suicide.” Airbrushing well-known reality is silly. But, like most American media outlets, NPR was merely following the World Health Organization’s published guidelines on covering suicide. According to experts, news accounts of suicide can feed a phenomenon called “suicide contagion” wherein people in emotional crisis are inspired by stories to see taking their own lives as a solution to their problems. As Time magazine wrote recently, “the more vivid the depiction of a death … the more it may contribute to suicide contagion.” Editors and producers are encouraged to avoid detailed descriptions of how victims of suicide did it, what their last note said, etc.
Reducing the suicide rate is a laudable goal. But journalists’ job is to report and analyze the news, not to reduce mortality. What’s next, refusing to mention hamburgers in the news because they contribute to arteriosclerosis? Cars because they kill people (and in vast numbers)? While we’re at it let’s censor war correspondency on the grounds that battle stories glorify militarism and thus prompt more wars!
Lying to readers is the worst sin a newspaper can commit. That includes lies of omission: readers pay for and have every right to expect the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from a product that promises exactly that. Playing cute by omitting important, relevant facts from the news, as in the Cobain story, seriously undermines the media’s credibility. That goes double when listeners and viewers know what really happened and realize they’re being treated like children by self-appointed nannies.
Moreover, self-censorship can destroy a story. Cobain’s death by suicide was a shocking where-were-you moment and a defining cultural experience for Generation X. I don’t see how millennials could understand that from the NPR account. It wasn’t merely the fact that the lead singer of Nirvana had died. The way he died was central.
Another way the media loses credibility while trying to do the right thing is adhering to the widely accepted belief among corporate news outlets that they are somehow responsible for protecting national security. When the press receives classified government materials from a leaker or whistleblower they often contact the relevant agency to authenticate the documents and/or to allow them to suggest redactions. If you watched “The Post” you saw The Washington Post contact the Nixon administration to give the White House a chance to argue why they shouldn’t publish the Pentagon Papers.
Media outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times shared the Edward Snowden files with the National Security Agency and the CIA so they could expunge information like the names of undercover intelligence operatives and suggest redactions. Even The Intercept (formerly a left-leaning media group) did this, to grievous effect: They foolishly shared leaked CIA documents with the feds, who used their analysis to track a whistleblower named Reality Winner. She is in prison. During the Gulf War, journalist Geraldo Rivera got in trouble for drawing a map showing troop movements in the sand. The Pentagon threw him out of Iraq and many reporters agreed.
They were wrong. Journalists are not government employees. They’re solely responsible to news consumers, not the military or intelligence agencies who failed to safeguard their own secrets. Why shouldn’t a reporter report what they know, whatever they find out, whatever it is, if it’s news — no matter how sensitive? If The New York Times had gotten the D-Day plans a week ahead of time, they didn’t owe the War Department a phone call. They should have published, consequences be damned.
As the D-Day example shows, respecting the public’s right to know is hard. Good people can die as a result. Wars may be lost. But for someone dedicated to journalism it’s an easy call. Either you’re a journalist or you’re nothing more than a low-rent liar and propagandist for the government.
Self-censorship often takes the form of policing newsworthy content for tastefulness. After U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told a senator — on the floor of the senate! — to go have sex with himself, respectable media organizations dashed out the f—- or otherwise danced around the nefarious fricative (as I am doing here because this column is syndicated). So dumb. Everyone knows what Cheney said. No one could deny it was news. So print it.
Then there are the “tasteless” photos that are routinely withheld from printed pages and TV screens in the U.S.: sexual images like Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and gruesome pictures of crime victims. America’s namby-pambyness is an outlier. In Latin America, photos of 9/11 jumpers ran on the front pages of major newspapers. But in the U.S., 17 years later, the images are still scrubbed from public view. Even a sculpture based on those photos was removed from public viewing as too controversial.
It’s not like we don’t know these images exist. We saw them in live coverage on 9/11. Those who didn’t watch them then have heard about it. The media has decided that we’re too sensitive to see our own history. Even if you agree with their editorial decision, doesn’t it make you wonder what else they’re keeping from us?
Images of 9/11 jumpers underscored the horror of the day. Censorship doesn’t respect the dead. It whitewashes their agony.
The counterfactual argument, like airing ISIS snuff videos that might encourage the creation of more such imagery, is powerful. Even with such disgusting material, though, journalists should err on the side of the news and the public’s right to know. The alternative, the nanny media we have now, cannot be trusted and feeds into the demagogic framing of “fake news.”
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist, columnist and writer. His latest book is “Francis: The People’s Pope.”