Fat Steve's Blatherings

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Another Comment at Roger L. Simon

      I did another comment on Simon's Question #1:

      Above, I set out some ideas on why "fair and balanced" is difficult, especially for the MSM, and said I'd try to give some suggestions for achieving fairness and balance.  Time to do that.

      But first, one more philosophical point.  In discussing religious revelation in The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes says:
      So that though God Almighty can speak to a man by dreams, visions, voice, and inspiration, yet He obliges no man to believe He hath so done to him that pretends it; who, being a man, may err and, which is more, may lie.
      Reporters have templates filled with "reliable" and "unreliable" sources, with people who aren't trustworthy because of their political opinions, and people who are because they say they are 'advocates for the disenfranchised,' or are 'speaking truth to power,' and with other preconceptions as to motive and accuracy.  This biases the reporters view of the story in advance.

      A final word on templates: many stories do fit various templates: 'Gang related shooting accidentally kills toddler;' 'Famous country singer had hard struggle to get noticed;' 'All politicians are crooks;' 'MSM misreports important story because of left-wing bias.'  But not all stories fit a template, and therefore one should question whether this particular story fits into the pre-conceived framework, and if it does, how well?  It helps immensely to look at the context here, for instance 'Just how common are gang related shootings nationwide?  In this city?  Have there been any discernible trends?  What makes me think this was an accidental death anyway?'

      Now, let's look at a couple of recent stories, especially the Linda Foley story, and consider how to be fair and balanced in view of what I said about templates.

      Since the tendency is to fit stories into preconceived frameworks, the first thing to do is to be aware of said frameworks and question them.  In the Foley case, I'd start with asking 'What is the story?'

      I can see several possible stories here.  One is 'What did Foley say?'  When I looked into it, I find that Foley was speaking of the alleged ill effects of conglomerate media ownerships, and that was most of the speech. She also related the alleged killings to the main theme:
      This is all part of the culture that it is OK to blame the individual journalists, and it just takes the heat off of these media conglomerates that are part of the problem.

      So if the story is what Foley said, we need to look at everything she said, not just the part about targeted journalists.

      The Dusty Attic has a transcript, incomplete but the longest I've seen.  In it, Foley is quoted as saying all journalists need to make restoration of credibility a top priority.  Then she says:
      The other thing, ah, I would just like to mention, the other trend that I think needs to be reversed, ah, that isn't talked about very much, is the targeting of journalists.

      Foley says journalists are being targeted by
      . . . the right side of the political spectrum, ah, journalists are blamed, ah, for many ills, that they just report on.

      What is happening in the media is not the fault of individual journalists. Yes, there are some bad individual journalists in the mainstream media.  There are also some very good individual journalists in the mainstream media, and it's probably, on balance just like any other profession.

      But what's wrong is that there is a systematic corporate, ah, corporate, ahm, dissolution of what we know is credible reporting and journalism.  And that what's really wrong and that's what we need to focus on, and that's what we have to fight.

      Then come the charges about killing, followed by:
      So, um, so, I would, I'm working with you, my members want to work with you, to try and change this. We do have to have other alternatives to corporate media out there, so that people... real people's voices can be heard, but you also have to help us change from within.

      I don't have enough interest in Foley's ideas to listen to and transcribe all she said, but a "fair and balanced" story would need to take it into account.  Since she made public charges, one would also allow those accused to answer her.  But the question of the truth or falsity of her charges would not, and should not be addressed.  This is a classic 'he said, she said' story, and who said what is all that a "fair and balanced" report would include.

      Closely related to the 'What did she say?' story would be a 'What did she mean?'story.  A "fair and balanced" version of that story would attempt to interview Foley and ask why she thinks there's a connection between conglomerate media ownership and the killing of journalists.  Again, the truth or falsity of her charges would not be at issue.  The reporter would strive to achieve what Herman Kahn called "second order agreement," in which the reporter can say 'Foley's position is . . .' whatever, and have Foley agree that the reporter's words adequately describe her thoughts.  I am personally surprised that no one has, apparently, asked her "What do you mean when you distinguish the 'military' from the troops?'

      Yet a third story would be 'Why does Foley think that the "U. S. military," whoever they are, targets and kills journalists, deliberately?'  The focus of this story is not on the facts of charge, but the psychology and epistemology of Linda Foley.  It's also a much more difficult story to do in a "fair and balanced" way.  To find out what Foley said, I listen to the tape, or ask people who were there.  To find out what she thinks, and why she thinks it, I need to talk with her, and then make judgments based on her behavior.  She may lie about what she thinks, or why she thinks it, and she may not be consciously aware of why she believes whatever it is she believes.  Unraveling her ideas could be very complex.  A particular pitfall is the temptation to believe that once you find out how someone came to hold an idea, you've shown the idea true or false.  E.g., I know something of how my brother became a 'born-again Christian,' but not whether his faith is correct or not.

      Yet another story could be 'Why do some people find Foley's charges interesting, and others not?'  As Thomas Lipscomb noted, there only seem to have been a few stories on this: by Mark Hyman of Sinclair Broadcasting; by O'Reilly on Fox; by Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher; and
the Chicago Sun-Times story I wrote, a St. Paul Pioneer Press column by Mark Yost, and a Washington Times column item.[Lipscomb]
      In the blogosphere, though, Foley's a fairly big story.  The 'Who's interested and why' story would look at these disparate reactions.  Again, as a story about psychology, it would be harder than the first two possible stories.

      The toughest story of all would be the 'Does the U.S. Military deliberately try to kill journalists?' story.

      One difficulty: what does 'Deliberately try to kill journalists' mean?  There was a cameraman who was shot by a soldier or marine (I'm too tired to look this up), and the shooter claimed he thought the camera was a rocket-propelled grenade launcher?  True?  Regardless, the shooter deliberately fired at the man, intending to wound at least, and perhaps kill.  It would be important to distinguish between "I deliberately intended to kill that guy," "I deliberately intended to kill that guy, because I thought he was an armed enemy combatant trying to kill me," and "I deliberately intended to kill that guy, knowing he was a journalist, because I hate journalists."

      And how would you go about establishing the shooter's state of mind anyway?  We could ask him, but being a man, may err and, which is more, may lie.

      Or consider the 'air attack on the al-Jazeera studios' that took place during the invasion of Baghdad.  A bomb or rocket hit the generator on top of the studios (accounts differ on the weapon used ).  A reporter and cameraman were on that roof, or the roof of the building next to the one with the generator (I've seen both said).  When the bomb or rocket exploded, the cameraman was wounded, and the reporter killed.  Everyone agrees on this.

      What isn't clear is what was intended.  Al-Jazeera claims that they gave the location of their building to the Pentagon.  Did they?  If so, what was done with the information?  The plane that attacked was reported to have been an A-10.  Does the A-10 pilot or weapons officer have a convenient way to aim radar or a laser at a building, and get it's GPS coordinates back?  Did the plane crew know they were attacking a TV studio?  If so, whom did they think was occupying it, and what did they think they were doing?  Whatever weapon was used struck the generator.  Was this intentional?  If so, it suggests the attackers wished to shut off electric power to the building.  True?  If true, what was the motive?

      Here also, 'deliberately targeting journalists' is an ambiguous phrase.  The al-Jazeera crew was reporting on the location of U.S. forces as they fought their way into the city.  The information was being broadcast live by satellite, if I recall correctly.  It's conceivable, and perhaps probable, that Iraqi forces were watching that broadcast, and using the information tactically.  Does this possibility make al-Jazeera a legitimate target?  If the plane crew knew they were hitting al-Jazeera, and did so with the intent of taking it off the air, how does that affect their moral culpability, if any, for killing the reporter?

      On second thought, there's a story that's much tougher than the 'Does the U.S. Military deliberately try to kill journalists?' story.  It's the combined story, which tries to answer that question, and what Foley meant, and why Foley and other journalists believe it, and why people react to it the way they do.  That looks like it would turn into a book if it was long enough to do justice to the combined story.  More likely, it would end up a muddle.

      Fair, balanced, accurate, honest journalism is tough.  In my arrogant opinion, making sure you know what story you're trying to write will aid the effort immensely.



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