I think the phrase “freedom of the press” has been taken in all the wrong directions lately. This thought sprang up as I listened to one of the “Big Three’s” evening newscasts last night. The top news stories of the evening included a perverted park flasher, a cheerleader in Iowa (or some other Midwestern state) who fell during a routine and injured her neck, but heroically continued to cheer as she was carried off the field, a story about the Loch Ness Monster, and finally the newscasters helpfully pointing out that it is raining; yes folks, that water falling from the sky is what the experts like to call RAIN.
I could be wrong, but I think there is a war going on in Iraq. Yes, I know President Bush said the “war” was over about three years ago. Apparently the major networks have taken him seriously. But since there are still troops fighting and dying on the ground, buildings being blown up and large numbers of people being killed or having their lives otherwise catastrophically interrupted, I continue to call it a war. But that’s just me.
There is also a volatile situation in Iran over nuclear power, tensions with China over Taiwan, recovery efforts in New Orleans, a serious homeless situation here in Los Angeles-basically, there are literally thousands of newsworthy events and stories all over the world, in this country, in California, and in Los Angeles that people really ought to know about in order to be at least adequately informed about their community and the world around them.
So that leaves me wondering why broadcasters and producers of network news programs seem to think that it is their sworn duty to bring the world the story of the brave little Iowan cheerleader or of the ever-elusive Nessie, that wacky Scottish hold-over from the Cretaceous period. “Freedom of the press” used to mean that journalists could seek out and speak the truth, question power and policy, and the public could then make up their own minds. This is a key factor in a functional democratic society. Such things as the blossoming of the civil rights movement, Watergate, and the end of the Vietnam War can be directly linked to journalists exercising their right to report the truth as they saw it unfold.
Now, “freedom of the press” seems to have been twisted to allow mainstream news broadcasters to relinquish their dignity, professionalism and responsibility as “reporters” in the most literal sense of the word. They have instead become seekers of ratings for the sake of advertising dollars. The lack of gravity to their reporting and their efforts to bring viewers the most frivolous of stories have become a serious handicap and grave disservice to the public. It prevents people from deciding their own destinies and changing things so that the world resembles more of what they want, rather than what the likes of Dick Cheney, Dupont, or Unocal want.
This is not to say that there is a dearth of competent, reliable journalists out there. As a matter of fact, National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), as well as numerous foreign organizations such as the BBC, have whole legions of them. If I really want to get news, I tune in to NPR or turn on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS. If I want my brain to liquefy and my senses abused, I turn may turn on Eyewitness News. Or better yet, I might go play Super Mario Brothers with my kid sister. Both are forms of entertainment on about equal intellectual par.
Bethania Palma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.