Saturday, December 01, 2007

A letter to the writers at the New York Times

Journalists everywhere are reminded to consider the pithy summary of their mission: to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. There’s much too much massaging of the comfortable, and certainly the editors at The Times know this, although the Times is complicit in much of it.

But don’t get me wrong: most mornings, I eagerly look forward to the national conversation which is the content of the Times. Is it flawed? Of course – but it’s only in the embracing of our own imperfections that we grow.

If society is a jungle, tempered by necessary codes of conduct including the famous social contract between the governed and those who govern, then the press operates within a jungle setting. And in a jungle, victory generally goes to the strong, and those who are able to win success within a group. Of such lions is most press coverage made. See the word lionize, which I interpret to mean the heaping of praise on someone already at the top.

The people who lionize generally win the lion’s favor – and this is certainly at work in much journalism – witness the corrupt fawning of the Russian media around Putin. Those press organs courageous or powerful enough not to lionize often still do it reflexively, and for compelling reasons – not the least of which is the fact that (most) everyone likes a winner.

The people who richly deserve a drubbing generally get off with a slap. Witness the recent excellent article by Gretchen Morgenson and Geraldine Fabrikant about Angelo Mozilo, who built Countrywide up into the nation’s largest marketer of subprime loans, and became fabulously rich in the process. In this article, Morgenson and Fabrikant show that Mr. Mozillo is a greedy SOB, take a bow, and then walk off the stage, leaving Mr. Mozilo to bask in a generally flattering press environment, stoked by his PR dollars. Because the story "has already been done," the Times will have no further comment unless he gets indicted or is otherwise the subject of scandal. Most likely, most other journalists will be properly deferential, because of the amount of money Countrywide has at its disposal.

My point is that the outing and shaming of the greedy, who benefit at the expense of the needy, doesn’t go nearly far enough. Part of the reason is that the press is controlled by corporate interests who exert a powerful influence behind the scenes. The “free press” isn’t really free. For example, let’s say you want to take out an add campaign around Thanksgiving that urges people to stay home on Friday and not shop. No commercial TV or radio station will agree to carry it. Same if you take out an ad urging people to, say, not buy anti-wrinkle creams on the ground that they don’t work. Again, your ad will be refused because it poisons the business climate for selling – or because an advertiser already in the station’s stable will object, which amounts to the same thing. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and that also goes for concepts like freedom.

Because the lions are complicit in the destruction of our environment, and, consequently, in the extinction of numerous species, the loss of biodiversity, and consequently in the impoverishment of mankind, they must be named and shamed, and not given a free pass. Unfortunately, that goes for many of your advertisers. Celebrate those who would undo the destruction, and who recognize it for what it is.


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