Accuracy in Media

Reprinted with permission of Editor & Publisher

Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley made a public statement on May 13 that journalists are “being targeted for real in places like Iraq.”  She has been trying to slide out of it ever since. Pressed by Editor and Publisher’s Joe Strupp, Foley offered a clarification. After all she hadn’t yet said who specifically was doing the targeting. “I was careful of not saying troops, I said U.S. military.”

Everette Dennis, a former dean of a journalism school and founder of the Gannett Center for Media Studies, finds this a distinction without a difference. “A military without troops is inconceivable. One presupposes the other.” It is as logically impossible to separate the troops from the military as it is egg whites from an omelet.  But let’s go with her “careful” and very artful clarification. After all thousands of bumper stickers do not say “Support the U.S. Military.” So now, according to Foley, it is the “U.S. military” that is arranging for journalists “being targeted for real.”

Sound familiar? It should. Eason Jordan, President of CNN News, had to resign for making exactly the same accusation at Davos four months ago. He had a major problem–no evidence to back up his charges. And being a prominent person in the news business, once the word got out through the blogosphere, just as it had on CBS’s use of phony Bush records, Jordan was caught in a media firestorm.

Every talking head rushed on air 24/7 to attack or defend what Jordan had supposedly said, and forests of newsprint were devoted to pundantics on the theme. And because no transcript was ever released, the entire affair was conducted in an embarrassing blather of hearsay.

Foley had the advantage of seeing what happened to Jordan, and, as the head of a powerful union of 35,000 journalists and media workers, she knew anything she said about targeting journalists would likely be scrutinized. So one would expect that she has a pretty solid case for her revival of the discredited Jordan charges? She does have the responsibility for doing her best to protect her dwindling membership. But one would be wrong. According to her spokesperson, Candice Johnson, Foley can provide “no evidence” to support her charges either.

A Sinclair Broadcasting commentator, Mark Hyman, actually watched the streaming video of Foley’s remarks and ran a tough piece that spilled into the blogosphere and onto The O’Reilly Report. This time there was a record right on the Internet anyone could see for themselves. The Vast Rightwing Conspiracy started to lace up its track shoes for another victory lap.

Foley braced for the worst. The Newspaper Guild stopped answering indignant phone calls leaving a titillating taped announcement explaining this was “due to the large numbers of what we believe to be coordinated phone calls.. .” Vox populi, vox coordinati? Foley was understandably concerned about her explanation of her original statement. “There are a hundred ways of saying this, but I’m not sure they would have appeased the right.”

Sherlock Holmes’s key clue to who stole the racehorse in “Silver Blaze” was a dog in the stall that didn’t bark. And something equally odd happened on the way to the Foley firestorm.

To date, not a single pundit, editorial writer, or newspaper, with the exception of my Chicago Sun-Times news story and a Washington Times column item has touched this.

Clearly Foley was correct in assuming the Right was the only danger to her repetition of the statement that got Eason Jordan canned. The Mainstream Media couldn’t be bothered to cover “Easongate: The Sequel.” And positioning Foley as the gallant defender of the lives of journalists targeted by the U.S. military — versus the Right? who presumably would target any of us who slipped through and had already ravaged CNN and CBS—was inspired PR. After all Sherlock Holmes’s dog didn’t bark because he was good friends with the thief.

Foley decided to improve the odds and issued another statement to me. In a further clarification of her clarification, Foley insists that she “doesn’t believe that our service men and women would knowingly fire on journalists and innocent civilians.”

So follow the logic. It is the U.S. military, not the troops, who targeted journalists. But if an occasional service man or woman just might have fired a tank round or two into the Palestine Hotel and killed some journalists, or dropped a bomb on Al Jazeera’s studio in Baghdad using the coordinates the US military had (both cited in her letter to President Bush of April 8th demanding an investigation), they didn’t do it “knowingly.” It recalls the gag epitaph on former Nazi space rocketry pioneer Werner von Braun’s tomb  ” I aim at the stars—but sometimes I hit London.”  Or was that the Nazi military? In which case what were those Nuremberg trials all about?

The average circulation decline among 684 US daily papers is averaging 1.9% in the past year. In some places it is catastrophic?Baltimore Sun down 11.5%, Los Angeles Times down 6.4%, Cleveland Plain Dealer down 5.2%, and the Chicago Tribune down 6.6%. Sunday papers are fairing worse with an average decline of 2.5%. This is the biggest drop in the last five years. And no one is forecasting a turnaround yet.

In case it hasn’t occurred to anyone,  that means fewer slots for Newspaper Guild workers. It may only be a coincidence, but the Newpaper Guild, CBS, and CNN are all getting their brains beaten out in the current marketplace. And they have provided the current collection of bad actors that have journalism’s reputation in freefall in recent polling of readers. Media credibility is in the toilet, even if the Koran isn’t.

The Manchester Guardian’s Peter Preston explains where the circulation is going?”the defectors are packing up and moving out of newsprint: to broadcasting in tiny measure (though radio and TV news are losing customers, too) but overwhelmingly to the net.” And it isn’t the Right or the blogosphere that are doing this to us, although that is what the MSM would prefer to believe. We are doing it ourselves.

If the most basic tenets of Journalism 101 are now no longer important enough for the media itself to honor and defend against their own members who violate them, where is the professionalism and the authority that is our main claim to writing the indispensable “first draft of history” ? much less its value for sale? And if we lose sight of that irretrievably, who needs us? There are bloggers out there today with more credibility than Dan Rather, Mary Mapes, Eason Jordan, and Linda Foley combined, and their audiences are growing.

If Foley is allowed to walk unchallenged from what Mencken might have called a “clear, simple, and” unproven statement on this tissue of “careful,” intentional, obfuscation and equivocation, it will only accelerate the speed at which her members lose what is left of their credibility– and then their jobs. The New York Times newsroom downsized more than 10% just this week.

If the press isn’t going to take its own standards seriously, it is hard to think of why anyone should take the press seriously enough to pay for it. In the meantime, Rupert Murdoch’s and Roger Ailes’s success offers a constant unpleasant reminder: the media market prefers dogs that bark.

You can contact Linda Foley and the Newspaper Guild at: 501 Third St., N.W., Suite 250, Washington, DC 20001; Phone: (202)434-7177; Fax: (202)434-1472; Email: (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Guest columns do not necessarily reflect the views of Accuracy in Media or its staff.

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