September 2004

Reputations and reliability.

Reputations and reliability.

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 reliability.

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 recreated… 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. They hadn't!].

The best response.

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 about education.

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.

Formal regulation.

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.

Improving the climate.

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 society.

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 has shown.

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 Baruch.

Comment is free but facts are sacred - Charles Prestwich Scott.

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 - anon.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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