There's an old saw in the news business: Journalism is the first draft of history. Of course, there's an element of truth to this statement. Historians routinely make use of newspapers and magazines, photographs, broadcast transcripts and archival recordings to understand and interpret the past.
But all too often, news workers use this phrase to dodge responsibility for getting the historical record right. It's a convenient way to make claims to journalistic authority without much concern for historical accuracy, or public accountability for that matter.
On Sept. 30, National Public Radio (NPR) announced, with considerable fanfare, the results of a new poll -- conducted in collaboration with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health -- that found that the American people feel "profoundly shut out of the current health overhaul debate." Listening to this story, I was reminded of a line from Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
The story, which aired on NPR's Morning Edition, was presented in a fashion that suggested the people's disenfranchisement from critical policy debates, like health care reform, was somewhat surprising -- revelatory in fact. For anyone paying even the most remote attention to grassroots and nationwide efforts to repair this country's broken and dysfunctional health care system, none of this was news.
Rather, this item is just one more indication of the crisis of democracy in this country: a crisis exacerbated by inside-the-beltway journalism practiced by corporate media and so-called public broadcasting.
Somewhere between faith and reason lies the power of the public imagination to shape society, for good or for ill. There was a time, not that long ago, when artists and writers, orators and visionaries, fueled the public imagination. Today, the public imagination is mass-produced and distributed by a handful of media conglomerates whose principle goal is neither inspiration nor enlightenment, but private profit and control.
This is not to say that commercial media are incapable of producing exceptional news, information and entertainment fare from time to time. Lately, however, its seems that for all of the media that is available to us 24/7 -- the printed word, film, broadcast radio and television, cable, satellite and internet communication -- the public imagination is suffering from a chronic case of arrested development.
This condition has reached epidemic proportions in recent weeks. Consider the media spectacle surrounding U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-S.C.) outburst during President Obama's address before a joint session of Congress or, for that matter, press coverage of Kanye West's schoolyard antics at the Video Music Awards.
I've been AWOL from The Bloomington Alternative during the month of August. I haven't been a total slacker, mind you. Aside from getting ready for the new school year and putting the finishing touches on a book manuscript, I've been keeping tabs on the media and politics by way of my blog.
Here are a few select items gleaned from my blog posts in recent weeks -- with a few additions and revisions for good measure.
First, the good news.
Power to the people
Curious the sort of popular protests that make the news these days. Some months ago it was the Tea Baggers. Lately it's been so-called Birthers and the anti-health care reformers who have captured the limelight.
In addition to being one of my busiest of the year, this past week has been one that I haven’t been able to get away from I-69 and, in a related matter, just how poorly the Bloomington community is served by its local “news media,” in this case WFIU radio. The connection between the two goes a long way to explain why more than 500 Indiana families and small businesses stand to have their homes, dreams and livelihoods destroyed in the near future by a political system that, free from the constraints of true journalism, thrives on graft and corruption.
It was a week in which I didn’t have time to do any reporting or real writing, in part due to a deadline on a months-long I-69 writing project that I will talk about at a later time. I had hoped to update readers on a watershed confrontation between I-69 supporters and opponents scheduled for 1:30 p.m. next Friday, Sept. 11, in City Hall. But e-mails asking for an update sent to the four members of the Bloomington-Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) produced only one response, from Andy Ruff, who said he didn’t know.
So, I’m left with no alternative but to recap and editorialize this week. I hate it when that happens, but so it goes.
More than 480 high school students from around the United States learned about Islam during the IU High School Journalism Institute Summer Workshop in July. Zakariah D. Love, a member of the Bloomington Islamic Center, called it "a good opportunity for the students to create knowledge about Islam interactively, rather than to receive it from the media."
The Summer Workshop challenges students' viewpoints and enables them to have the chance to meet a variety of people from different perspectives and to approach and interview them, said Institute Director Teresa A. White, a full-time lecturer at the IU School of Journalism. "We want to instruct and improve journalistic and publication staff skills and give our students the opportunity to be more knowledgeable, professional and open-minded."
To help achieve this goal on the topic of Islam, students wrote feature stories, straight news stories or editorials about a lecture presented by IU professor Faiz Rahman, president of the Islamic Center in Bloomington. They also interviewed members of the Bloomington Islamic Center.
A front-page story in the July 8, 2009, edition of the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is cutting deals with health industry groups in an effort to gain support for the president's healthcare reform initiative. "Rather than running advertisements against the White House," the Times notes, "the most influential players in the industry are inside the room negotiating with administration officials and leading lawmakers."
Of course, deal making is at the heart of all political processes, but lately it seems that corporate interests -- the banking industry, automakers, coal companies and the lobbyists who love them -- are the only ones with seats at the table.
If there is an upside to news of Michael Jackson's sudden and unexpected death it is this: wall-to-wall press coverage of the pop star's passing has put the brakes on Western media's propaganda campaign over street protests in Iran -- at least for the time being.
For the better part of two weeks, U.S. and UK news outlets have been spinning the disputed outcome of recent Iranian elections in a manner that supports the strategic aims of Washington, London and Tel Aviv: to discredit the Iranian leadership and legitimate calls for "regime change" in Tehran.
While images of the Iranian people demanding greater transparency and accountability from their government are undeniably moving, if not downright inspiring, press coverage of these spontaneous expressions of democracy reveal the double standards of both the political and media establishment.
The fact that I can't remember the last time I saw Kurt Van der Dussen didn't lesson the impact when I read in the Herald-Times last week of his death. I knew enough about his condition to not be shocked, but still. As odd as this may sound to those who know the personalities, Kurt was a mentor and a role model to me. He was also a great Bloomington character who will never be replaced.
Kurt died June 9 at Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis, where he had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer. He was 59. H-T Editor Bob Zaltsberg wrote an outstanding account of Kurt as a person and journalist on Wednesday's editorial page, as did the news staff in a story that quoted many of his long-time sources in town.
I was exposed to Kurt's unique brand of journalism from the day I started at the H-T in 1985, fresh out of grad school and brimming with journalistic ideals. My first beat at the paper was county government, which Kurt had covered for eight years. I literally followed in his footsteps.
During the general election last year, then-Sen. Barack Obama and his rival, Sen. John McCain, met in Nashville, Tenn., for a "town hall" format presidential debate. Midway through the proceedings, a woman named Lindsey Trellow asked Obama one of the most cogent questions of the campaign: "Senator, selling healthcare coverage in America as a marketable commodity has become a very profitable industry. Do you believe healthcare should be treated as a commodity?"
Both candidates danced around the issue for a few minutes before debate moderator, Tom Brokaw, muddied the waters with a follow up question of his own. Today, as Congress considers a major overhaul of the healthcare system, this fundamental question is still off limits in political circles and the establishment media.