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January 21, 2005

On Western Journalism

Long ago in The Well, somebody remarked of my writing that in its finer moments there were object lessons which should be taught in J-School. The remark that brought forth this praise was a poem about OJ Simpson.

there's nothing much to learn at all from tv murder trials
but prosecutors faces and defense attorney styles
and what a witness looks like when he's lying through his teeth
proving perjury needed no tapes so where's the beef?
the evidence admissible to television crews
spin doctored, sliced and diced and skewered daily on the news
for weeks on end, ubiquitous no matter where you tune
is bound to be quite dubious and yet since back last june
the country has sat spellbound in a simpson trial jones
a broken family's father spills his grief into our homes
a dozen pseudo witnesses sold their tales to feed the flame
a million hours of advertising bankrolling the game
but worst of all americans, despite that we've been warned
have swallowed so much swill as truth and think that we're informed.
and thinking all this edutainment legal evidence
believing the renditions of this tv farce made sense
accepting that all reason is on our side of the fence
have made ourselves the greatest fools, with racial consequence.

I've had gripes with TV journalism almost forever, and print journalism when I moved to New York in 1991 and began reading more than two or three daily journals. It has always been part and parcel of my prospects for the online world for there to be a new kind of communications that would surpass what I call the 'false objectivity' of journalism. One of my first efforts was called 'B: An Electronic Magazine of Black Experience'.

In my view the editorial style and physical limitations of what we call newspapers force researchers into particular ways of seeing things that lack the authenticity of the voice of people, African Americans, especially. The very manner in which newspapers and televised journalistic reports are assembled are biased to profess the false objectivity of journalists who themselves have become a very powerful class of Americans. This bias for me has become unendurable and I find it most annoying to parse through a multiplicity of papers to get at the truth. Having done so, the truth I arrive at seems much the product of oppositional cross-examination of institutions with much to hide. Yet often there are odd spots of writing I happen upon which ring with the flavor of authentic experience. It is this type of information that gives me the confidence that the world is indeed populated by human beings who can understand and explain it and do so out of genuine curiosity and love.
Through B, I was trying to create a countervailing stream of personal evidence about the character of people's lives. I was trying to get some texture and nuance into the air. I was so upset and offended about the generic characterizations about blackfolks regarding their 'singular' 'experiences with police', which were asserted with such regularity after the OJ verdict and trial of the cops who beat Rodney King. It's interesting in retrospect that no mainstream journal came up with any shorthand term for those four, (Koon, Powell, Wind & Brisneo) but those blacks who beat Reginald Denny became known as the 'LA Four'. As an aside, those cops got many millions for their defense funds, so there is ample precedent for the recent awards in Inglewood.

I have more recently been parsing through some of the discussion at Dan Gillmor's joint which I discovered through the arrival of Faye Anderson to the blogosphere. Faye's history is something I think has never been quite well understood by the public and it is important, by the way. But some common themes are arising in these and other criticism of the mainstream media. Aside from bloggers' bluster, I think that as more and more professional journalists elect to blog, there will be a tipping point at which the industry will be shaken. The right story could do it, it meaning the marking of the moment when some trend when the editorial practices of major news outlets will be consciously changed to reflect a new ethics as prompted by what's going on online.

But as I peel slowly through Kishore Mahbubani, I discover other, more borad criticisms of Western journalism from an Asian perspective, and I have found significant parallels between his attacks and my complaints. I give you his list of heresies:

  1. American journalists do not believe in the Christian rule "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."
  2. Power corrupts. The absolute power of the Western journalist in the Third World corrupts absolutely.
  3. A free press can serve as the opiate of society.
  4. A free press does not necessarily lead to a well ordered society.
  5. Western journalist, in covering non-Western events, are conditioned by both Western prejudices and Western interests. The claim of 'objective' reporting is a major falsehood.

He goes on to level some heavy criticisms of Western governments.

I am particularly attuned to item number three as it relates to both 'manufactured consent' and the flatheadedness of eclecticism. I find that the idea that we can know most everything about most everything, and that our variety of news sources gives us that to be an enormous deception. I don't seek to belabor this point but merely bring it up in the context of this ongoing discussion about the ethics of journalism at Gillmor's and other joints. However there are many ramifications of this deceptive 'ability' which relates to the frame of the debate over Iraq, the character and nature of Islam and the daily lives and aspirations of Americans themselves.

If it were not for the online world, I think we would know ourselves a lot less well. It is my sincere hope that this medium continues to challenge notions of how, why and to what extent we learn about the world.

Posted by mbowen at January 21, 2005 08:18 AM

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