| Reputations and
This month the controversy over documents purportedly showing that
because of his political connections pressures had been put on the
then superiors of President George Bush, then serving in the Texas
Air National Guard and thus escaping being drafted to fight in Vietnam,
to give him favourable reports and that he had disobeyed orders
has emphasized the value of reputation and how dependant it is on
This applies in most areas of human activity and we wouldn't have
thought this a natural subject for our comments but for the reaction
of various partisans, particularly in talk radio, who have been
crowing in a rather unseemly manner about the failures of
CBS and Dan Rather in circumstances when the comparison
might fairly be described as people in glasshouses firing blunderbusses.
The implications for the nature of US democracy in a climate of
rancour could be significant.
We don't propose to add much to the comment on CBS except to note
that the team chosen to look into the matter - Dick Thornburgh,
former governor of Pennsylvania and United States attorney general
under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush,
and Louis D. Boccardi, retired president and chief executive
officer of the Associated Press - both have a reputation
as honourable men.
So what was the reaction of the most (in)famous US talk host? Rush
Limbaugh, even before they are named, categorizes them as "some
stupid blue-ribbon panel", says their duty it to "whitewash
this as best can be done" and comments that "CBS knew
they were forgeries, knew they weren't true, knew they had been
That's what Dan Rather engaged in: tell lies to
the people in order to advance their 'common good'".
Limbaugh is of course entitled to his opinions, however bigoted
they may be, but when it comes to making statements that are presented
as if they have a factual basis when this is not established - be
it over the airwaves by CBS, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage,
Al Franken, or Randi Rhodes, or on the web by Matt
Drudge or harm is done to democracy and decency in the US Joeplonker
[RNW note: We are not attacking any real person here and did check
all the usual domains to see if someone had registered JoePlonker.
There are two possible main responses to a
situation like the above -regulate or educate: We prefer the
latter but unfortunately it is generally honoured in the breach
and the former can easily slip into overt censorship.
We prefer education would be the best and most honourable
approach although suspect that in most so-called democracies
there would be major upheavals were the electorate to be even
half way devoted to fair play, accuracy and decency as well
as reasonably educated and informed.
We can only suggest that, destructive though it is in a sense,
every news story or opinion should always be approached with
a few questions in mind-Who benefits from this? Why has it
come out? Why now? Does it fit with known information and
seem correct? Is this source generally reliable?
They won't always provide the correct answer but they will
improve the strike rate (and if asked rigorously enough might
have led CBS to hold off its broadcast).
In the case of anything from Limbaugh and most partisan radio
hosts, Matt Drudge, et al, the only sensible approach
to us is to treat the information as gossip or tainted by
bigotry. This may at times be unfair to individuals but it's
probably a better working guide than believing a word they
say unless substantiated from other sources.
In addition, we would note, cynical that it may seem, that
far too often despite the platitudes emanating from sources
such as the Federal Communications Commission
about diversity, very often all information other than local
- and often the local information as well - in most mainstream
media is a compilation of information from two prime sources
the Associated Press and Reuters,
rather than a product of original reporting.
The Internet is an invaluable resource for checking further
but far too often those posting information or opinions hide
their bias with weasel descriptions or have no track record
and the search engines tend to narrow rather than widen the
range of sources for most people, who simply don't have the
time to track things down.
All the above leads us to the conclusion that education about
the media and information is highly desirable and not the
soft option so regularly decried by pundits when commenting
Indeed were they to think a little wider and read even skimpily
about various financial and political scandals that might
well have been cut short had there been more glare of publicity,
we think they would find it difficult to argue against media
education although they could well make valid comments about
the need being more in the early school years as opposed to
degree level courses.
If nothing else it might kill some of the wackier conspiracy
theories that make the round and make some radio hosts figures
to poke fun at rather than take seriously.
But what about regulation? We remain leery of state regulation
of media and what can be broadcast but at the same time cognizant
of the need to strike a balance between chilling freedom of speech
and the right of an individual to fair treatment.
This, however, in our view is best treated through normal processes
of law and we would not regard it as unfair in principle that
individuals should bear responsibility for the foreseeable effects
of what they broadcast: The devil, however, is in the detail and
the principle would be absolutely revolutionary if applied in
general rather than specifically to broadcasters.
We think that here it needs to be remembered that broadcasters
are using a public resource - the spectrum - and thus can fairly
be held to standards that may not apply everywhere but even then
it could be argued that all businesses are dependant upon the
framework of laws and resources of the communities in which they
operate and thus the same principle could arguably apply to all.
All in all, we think regulation therefore is not only a complex
issue and an area where it is not possible to be fair but is also
an area where public attitudes are probably likely to be more
effective than regulation.
We thus opt in the end for continuing discussion about and possible
movement of boundaries concerning legal issues of slander and
libel and remedies for demonstrable damage done but not additional
regulation of broadcasters, particularly when newer technologies
are introducing new competitive pressures for the broadcasters.
We also think, however, that the public have to take a large
share of the blame, not just whine about standards. If people
didn't buy some of the more misogynistic rap recordings, the
artists right to produce them is not infringed but their effect
is significantly reduced.
Similarly if rather than getting over upset at a brief flash
of a breast and covered nipple, the US public had got sufficiently
excised about some of the scurrilous attacks on John McCain
during his presidential bid four years ago, we suggest the
message might have gone out that such tactics were counterproductive
rather than that they work - something that we think would
have been to the long-term benefit of US democracy and US
As it is, the reverse message has gone out, the dirty tricks
and emphasis on the negative continue to be seen as likely
to be successful, and everyone pays through poor decisions
made because the knowledgeable know there are shades of grey
and thus deliver more complicated choices whilst the ranters
go for black and white which is must easier to grasp but frequently
leads to more severe problems down the road.
Which of course takes us back to reputations, which unless
you have a lot of time, are often the best guide as to
the likely accuracy of information. They take a long time
to build and can be damaged easily - as the CBS incident
At the same time the response from CBS - as indeed from
other mainstream media such as the Washington Post
and New York Times - puts to shame most
of their critics. Whatever talent Limbaugh may
have on loan from anybody, it doesn't seem to go far towards
graceful admission of error and corrections! The same
would appear true of most US politicians.
And to end a few quotations - make of them what you will:
Every man has a right to be wrong in his opinions. But
no man has a right to be wrong in his facts - Bernard
Comment is free but facts are sacred - Charles Prestwich
Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each
other - William Faulkner.
Facts have a cruel way of substituting themselves for
fancies. There is nothing more remorseless, just as there
is nothing more helpful, than truth - William C. Redfield.
It is easier to believe a lie that one has heard a thousand
times than to believe a fact that no one has heard before
What you think? Please E-mail