Whoever called it a "free press" was wrong; it's very costly. In fact, getting information, in this country, gets more and more expensive every day, not just for those who buy the newspaper, but for those who report the news.
A few days ago, in San Francisco, a federal judge ruled that two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wadu, must satisfy a subpoena, and tell who provided them with secret testimony in the high profile Barry Bonds steroid case. Both reporters said they will go to jail before revealing their sources. When journalists face jail time for little more than fulfilling a prerequisite of Journalism 101, honoring confidentiality of material provided to them, the notion of tamper-free, and authentic information is in jeopardy. While, in recent years, we have heard much talk about the separation between church and state, no one is saying a word about a necessary separation between the press and the state. When those who bring us information about what our government is doing are called upon to account to representatives of that government for the news they report, or its sources, the credibility and accuracy of that information is forever compromised..
While we need separation between the press and the state, we also need separation between the press and big business, in this country. As the Washington Post reported, on August 15th, the Federal Communications Commission recently sent letters to 77 T.V. broadcasters nationwide requesting that they properly label "video news releases," or "fake news" promotional pieces for big companies like General Motors, Panasonic, and the American Dental Association. Evidently, these "video news releases" are introduced into broadcasts without any disclosure of the fact that they were subsidized by the companies whose services they promote. The FCC's action was prompted by a study by the Center for Media and Democracy, last spring, which found that news stations no longer differentiate between so-called video news releases, and verifiable news. This is a dangerous policy. And, the underlying question, of course, is: what is a verifiable news report, who's verifying it, and why is it that American journalists are being coerced, in an unprecedented way, to divulge their sources while high profile corporations, like GM, have been getting away with feedng their goods, and services, via prime time airwaves to consumers without disclosing that they are paying for these reports?
More importantly, for those of us who are fond of a phrase that reverberates from 9/11, it's time to connect the dots. What about the Lincoln Group? What about the public relations campaign conducted by the Bush administration to make the invasion of Iraq more sexy,. and more palatable to the American people? Where does big business and big government merge, and is this "the American way?"
While the Washington Post also asserts that "none of the releases in the (Center for Media and Democracy) study were paid for by the federal government," clearly there are many instances in which reports, in our nation's leading newspapers, that made the argument for "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq in the days leading up to the toppling of Baghdad, were, at the very least, sculpted by the White House press corps. Additionally, we hear of more and more photographs taken in the war zone being doctored, and can only speculate about how many words, and phrases, have been nuanced by this administration in an effort to put a happy face on a horrific conflict.
When, out of fear, reporters for leading newspapers are leaving the real investigative work to those like Sy Hersh who write, in The New Yorker, about U.S. collusion with Israel in the months before Hezbollah captured two Israeli hostages, a sad day has dawned on American journalism. When CNN takes material from Sy Hersh, in The New Yorker, and not The New York Times, or The Washington Post, that suggests the arming of Israeli, and support of the bombing of Beirut may, in fact, be a dress rehearsal for a prospective air strike on Tehran, one must inevitably ask, would Richard Nixon have been forced to resign if Watergate were to happen today? Would the information of wrongdoing that surfaced thanks to the efforts of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein be open for public viewing in 2006, as it was in the 1970s, or would Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein be silenced by the prospect of doing jail time if they weren't prepared to reveal the identity of Deep Throat?
More to the point, what does it say about these times that a president of the United States would probably have been able to commit a burglary of his opposing party's headquarters, at the Watergate, and get away with it today only because of a press that has been neutralized by fear of the consequences that would come about by merely doing their job. Who needs censorship when we have self-censorship. When news is being withheld, or neutralized, at best, how can we expect anything but cynicism from those who read our daily papers? Maybe the reason many aren't buying newspapers isn't that they can get information for free on the Internet, but because they don't believe what they read, and how can they?
What a milestone we've reached when a governmental agency like the FCC sends out a mass mailing to ask that broadcasters say "and now a word from our sponsors" when presenting news reports designed for marketing purposes. When broadcasters no longer have the good sense to distinguish, on their own, between paid promotional material, and real news, how can we, the consumer, tell the real blonde from the fake? What a milestone this is, too, when the pressure for disclosure falls on the shoulders of those who bring us what little information we have about what our government is up to, without whom we, as consumers and as an electorate, would remain in the dark.
We agree that it's necessary to "properly label" video releases. It may not be a bad idea, too, to apply the label "caution: contents under pressure" to print, and broadcast, news as, increasingly, it appears that if not for fake news, there'd be no news at all.