News media attacked

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(HOST) Commentator Allen Gilbert looks at important changes that are taking place in the news business.

(GILBERT) The news media have taken it on the chin recently. Here in Vermont, print and broadcast outlets have been criticized for their coverage of a recent sex offender sentencing case. They have been accused – justifiably, it turns out – of not telling the whole story.

On the national level, people wonder why The New York Times withheld – for a year – the story about illegal spying by the National Security Agency. Internationally, the Danish press has been excoriated by Muslims for publishing cartoons containing images of the prophet Muhammad.

Sex offenders, spying, offensive editorial cartoons. As dramatic as each of these stories seems, they’re all signs of a free press. And a free press can make mistakes. It can choose NOT to print important stories. It can also anger us, even in deeply felt ways. That’s what an independent free press is all about.

We also need to keep in mind that most news outlets are commercial ventures. There’s sometimes a powerful incentive to run with stories that “sell.” It’s only the professional integrity of reporters, editors, and publishers that provides a balance when pecuniary self-interest runs strong. But internal checks are best. Censorship of the press is the alternative – and nobody wants that.

I have another worry. The press seems increasingly prone to manipulation by political leaders. The Bush administration has been successful in neutering news investigations into suspicious government activities by sharing secrets with reporters – and then telling the reporters that they are bound by national security interests not to report the secrets. This technique seems to be the genius of Karl Rove, as reported in a recent “Vogue” magazine piece.

Maybe the news business has always been this way. But I think that new elements in the news business are causing major changes. On December 13, USA Today announced that it was merging its print and online newsrooms. A press release said that this will create “a single 24-hour newsroom that will inform and engage readers on multiple platforms.” On the same day, USA Today ran an op-ed piece by an Emory University journalism professor that asked, “Can Newspapers Weather the Techno-Storm?”

Newspapers and other traditional news outlets are facing extreme competitive pressures. The “techno-storm” from Web-based journalism is real. I worry that the desire for self-preservation may be causing some news outlets to trade a bit of integrity for glitz, glitter, and speed – stories that “sell.” We may be “engaged” on more “platforms,” but are we really better “informed” in ways that help us to identify issues and solve problems?

Some have said that working in the news profession is a “sacred trust.” We’ll all benefit if that sentiment is kept in mind as the news business evolves. Even bloggers have to recognize the awesome responsibility that goes with the published word.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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