Monday, December 05, 2005

Free Press Myths

Protected Entities, Objectivity and Trust

Over the course of the last few years, reporters and news agencies, particularly those operating outside of the United States and within war zones, have raised a recurring cacophony. The refrain begins with the words "free press" and ends with "protected". In between we find phrases such as "objective", "first amendment"; "targeting journalists" and a few other phrases that we should be familiar with.

The most recent examples of this myth are the complaints by Al Jazeera in Qatar concerning a memo that purported to discuss the targeting of their main office (and claims that the US was intentionally targeting branches in other countries including Iraq) and the charges of intentional targeting of reporters (again, particularly within war zones).

Reporters and media entities have attempted, by dent of repeated refrain, to set themselves apart from national and political identities; mirroring in some way certain NGOs like International Red Cross or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. However, like these entities, any protection that exists is subject to certain boundaries.

What is the definition of a free press?

Press (noun) #5

a. The collecting and publishing or broadcasting of news; journalism in general.
b. The entirety of media and agencies that collect, publish, transmit, or broadcast the news.
c. The people involved in the media, as news reporters, photographers, publishers, and broadcasters.

Free (adj) #3
c. Not subject to arbitrary interference by a government: a free press.

Arguably, whether a media entity or "press" is "free" depends on several factors including what country that entity claims as its "home" base and from what country that entity is reporting from. If the state owns the media entity or that state has specific laws governing and limiting content or the state security and law apparatuses arbitrarily enforce penalties, arrests or other activities (including assassination) the press of that country cannot be defined as "free".

For instance, are the officially sanctioned "press" of China "free"? What about Egypt, Russia or Saudi Arabia? France, Canada and England subsidize the major broadcasting networks in their countries and strictly guard licensing of these networks yet they are considered "free" because, largely, the governments do not control the daily operations and selection of stories to print, but, does the close monitoring of the government and even tentative association with the government imply a lack of freedom?

Further, are reporters and branch offices of agencies that operate from countries that do recognize and protect the rights of a free press actually "free" when they operate from inside a country that does neither? We know that reporters of "free press" that operated in Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein's reign had their emails and other communications, including all publications, monitored by the state. We also know that these reporters were subject to imprisonment, deportation or barred from the country if the state felt that the reporters, either during their time in country or publication of reports while outside the country, were deemed detrimental to the state or its image. Further, both reporters and agencies, under the auspices of self protection and protection of employees or sources, self-edited their content.

We can safely assume that this "self-editing" occurs for any reports about or from other authoritarian or totalitarian states to include China and Russia.

Does this actually constitute a "free" press?

Is "freedom" of the press only defined by the protection it receives from the state it is incorporated in and the fact that the "home" state government does not arbitrarily interfere with the press or is it also defined in various degrees by self imposed or foreign state imposed limits? Or, does the effect of self-imposed and foreign state imposed limits actually constitute something outside of the question of "free press" such as "truth" and "trust"?

Free Press does not equal trust.

A Harris Poll taken January 13, 2005 indicated that 32% of the American population "trusted" the media. Responses from the media ranged from defensiveness to the usual insufficient attempts by large entities to identify and correct this perception. The defensive responses ranged from attempts to explain the difficulties and dangers journalists face to blaming the perception on other entities including tabloids, bloggers and other "legitimate" press entities that have discredited or attacked their own agencies directly. The insufficient attempts by the press to identify and correct this problem included news papers and online press providing links to "how a story is created"; providing reader and watcher "ombudsmen" as well as cable news programs and online venues of print or network news reading or linking to comments from readers. These are insufficient because they have neither led to more trust in the media nor addressed the actual cause of the lack of trust.

The truth is, part of the trust of the media does involve how well the media's reporting reflects the narrative widely understood and accepted by its consumers. This is probably why the press in other countries enjoys more "trust", such as Europe, where 47% to 62% of respondents (depending on vehicle of delivery) indicated trust in the press.

Some in the American press will and have argued that their job is to report "objectively" on stories and not reflect their audience's biases. They have, in fact, incorporated their own myth of "objectivity", "truth", "independence" and "responsibility of the free press" into their ideal of a "free press" when in fact the second, and possibly largest problem damaging the "trust" of their audience is that the media entities and individual reporters continue to claim that they are objective when they are not; claim that they are reporting the "truth" when they have not or have omitted truth for whatever reason; insist their reporting is "free and independent" when it cannot be under every state government or situation; when they claim that their responsibility as a free press is to provide an independent "check" against powerful entities such as the government or corporations or even other states when they are in fact only the vehicle for information and it is the citizens of the state (arguably only free states) that are the check on these powers through voting, free market and free association; and when they declare that their job is to provide transparency of powerful entities yet they are perceived as a powerful entity without similar transparency of its own practices, the ideas that it claims to represent become a self perpetuated myth.

This self induced myth the media or press has perpetrated on itself is the reason that, in a free market with many competitors, many of the “grand ol’ press” have seen their ratings and revenues decrease. Consumers shop for products that best suit their needs and enhance their lives, not necessarily for products that marketers think the consumer should buy. In fact, consumers no longer see the press as simply a useful tool in making informed decisions, but, being treated as uneducated, uninformed and easily duped consumers that will buy anything, has caused them to apply the maxim: “buyer be ware”.

Protection of the press is directly related to its location

The truth is, media entities and reporters only operate as a “free press”, protected and without arbitrary interference by the government (or any government) when they operate within the borders of a state that actually has laws that guarantee freedom of the press and that press is incorporated in or operates mainly from that state. Even within states that do provide for protection of the press, it does not stand to reason that a state must allow press agencies or reporters from other countries to operate within their borders. Particularly when those same entities are not free and may even be an arm of the hostile state. More so if that state is hostile to or engaged in hostilities with the free state protection of the press is null and void. No state may be induced to fore go its national security for the idea that any other press than the state’s own is free to operate inside the country.

It’s true that reporters from other countries, even hostile countries, operate and report from inside the United States. This is partly due to the “free press” idea, but also as a way to send information, even if it is cut and biased, into the other country either to convey information or to evaluate how that information is portrayed or used in the state. Such evaluation can provide valuable information about the condition or position of that state.

The further away from its state of origin that the press or a reporter operates, the less they can assume protection. It is the very reason that many entities and reporters self-impose editing. When reporting in or about other free states, particularly those that the press entity’s home nation or state has friendly relations, the more likely their freedom will be protected. This protection is not predicated on the laws of the state so much as the umbrella of protection provided by the power of their home nation/state. As the degree of freedom and association of the host country degrades, the less the press can assume protection. In chaotic, anarchic states, protection begins and ends with whatever protection the non-state actors will provide the press or that the press can provide for themselves. The same protection can turn on a dime. This degradation of protection is the reason many in the press have attempted to form an over all narrative of objectivity and non-bias, extending beyond the localized matters of their state, in some respects, rejecting their nationality as a definitive label.

The protection provided by this narrative is largely illusionary. It may be that the press and reporters in the field are more convinced of this illusionary protection than those they seek protection from. In a war zone, this guarantee of protection amounts to nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes; i.e. the reporter and the press is naked. This does in fact relate to how a story is developed and the type of information the consumer will see, which is to say that the free and independent press reporting the whole story, omitting nothing, may also be non-existent.

The fact that the press does not advertise this probability goes back to issues of transparency and trust. If there is one thing the press has failed to do is to inform its consumers of this fact and educate them on the development of stories. Not that those consumers don’t know that this happens, but the fact that the press does not admit it appears, well, untrustworthy. And, why does the press not tell the consumer why the story has limitations? Because the press believes that not doing so improves the appearance of a trustworthy entity.

The Press As An Information Conduit Of Another State or Organization Is Not Protected

The recent expressions of outrage from the press concerning the possibility that Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar was considered a potential target are specious at best. First it implies that Al Jazeera is a protected entity under the laws of the United States. Again, free press is only guaranteed for entities operating within the borders of the United States or under the umbrella of whatever protection the government can or will provide them. Secondly, it implies that there is an enforceable, recognized international law that provides this extended protection to all media entities regardless of country of origin which is equally false and doubly so in a time and region at war. Third, it implies that Al Jazeera actually operates as “free press” which we know is false since it does receive large subsidies from the Qatar government and is subject to censure from that government. Fourth, it ignores realities of modern warfare which include in the concept of “shaping the battlefield” through denial of information which includes destruction or obstruction of all media within any country we are at war with or organizations outside of the state that may provide information to the enemy and, in the case of Al Jazeera, providing a conduit for non-state actors to pass and receive information.

In fact, from this perspective not considering the possibility of destroying this conduit, either inside the country we are at war with or in the surrounding areas, would be operationally criminal, but doing so would not constitute a criminal act either against US laws or any ambiguous international laws. Neither is it immoral except in the minds of those that wish to develop a construct where reporters are a protected species above and beyond laws, realities of world conflicts or physical abilities of states.

The act that it was not bombed is due to several issues:

1) It is based in a friendly state that is providing a base of operations for out troops and equipment. Thus it was provided protection due to its proximity and importance to a friendly state.
2) To do so would cause an “international incident” where Qatar could then claim the US had declared war on it (see #1)
3) Strategically, the information being broadcast out was less harmful then actually taking it out.
4) Strategically, the information from the enemy that it was obtaining and broadcasting out provides a good, “open source” base of information for US intelligence and military to analyze.
5) Strategically, the information we were able to provide through this conduit, using it as a tool in the information war, was more valuable.
6) In summation, Al Jazeera was more useful as an operating entity than destroyed.

The truth is, even international press organizations understand that, in a time of war in a war zone, the usefulness to either side or any latent ideas of free press are the only things that protect them. The press as a whole and across many borders is expressing outrage because by their own constructs and ingrained myths, they are attempting to define all press and reporters as entities without national or political identity, like a non-government organization that would be protected from and by any state or actor. It’s false and an illusion that may lead to reporters fore going the only real protections they have which I have outlined above.

Extended Protection To Other Press Infers Protection To All

Some reporters may actually believe that extending protection to other press outside the country will lead to their own protection. This expectation may include the desire or belief that they may be protected against destruction or obstruction from any state that may go to war or is at war with the United States or its allies. Because all media, whether free or under the control of the home state government, is considered a tool for passing information, if a state chose to attack this state, one of the first targets would be information and communications. There is no law that could protect them, nor any problematic moral issues that would deter any state acting against them.

Protection of a free press has limits and boundaries.

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