Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ethics, Editing and the American Media Defense of NPR

I know that I don’t post here nearly as often as I would like, but I wait until something happens that really annoys me. I want to rant about things that have some substance rather than just fill cyberspace with notes about life’s minor irritations.

That said, let’s take on the national media, just for fun.

Not long ago a "civilian" journalist posted a video of leaders at NPR making comments that were less than flattering to the GOP and the TEA Party. They suggested that conservatives and their ilk were racist, among other things.

The tape was made with a hidden camera (and for the record, a hidden microphone, as if that distinction is necessary). The "normal" or maybe I should say "regular" and certainly the "mainstream" media were outraged. These sort of ambushes were unethical by today’s standards and "real" journalists wouldn’t stoop to such levels...

Except for NBC News which once, to prove that the saddlebag gas tanks in Chevrolet pickups would explode in a collision put small rocket motors at the points of impact. They wanted to ensure that the gas tank would explode in a nice fiery display suitable for the evening news.

Except for ABC News that reported James Brady, the White House press secretary wounded in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan had died. When it was learned that Brady was still alive, one of their anchors came on to tell us that they weren’t reporting rumors. They had verified their facts from three or four sources, which all sounded like good, solid reporting, except Brady HADN’T DIED. It makes no difference how many sources they had if the man was still alive.

Except for CBS News, which reported that they had documented evidence that George Bush hadn’t properly fulfilled his Air Guard obligation. Had they checked the documents, they would have learned they were bogus but they were too anxious to smear the President (and no, it doesn’t really matter what you thought of him, the news media should get the story straight before they broadcast it).

Except for NBC, again, which had been running sting operations to catch predators trolling the Internet for youngsters. These guys would show up and Chris Hansen would step out to ask them questions about what they thought they were doing. It all ended when one guy in Texas, about to be outed, shot himself.

Or how about all the stories about the Ford Pinto blowing up in rear end collisions because of the placement of the gas tank. The Des Moines Register ran a story headlined that suggested a woman had been killed in another Pinto accident... except the car hadn’t exploded. She had been thrown from the vehicle in a crash and died of her injuries. The car did not explode. That it was a Pinto was irrelevant. The headline was misleading, at best.

Or how about Peter Arnett, at one time a darling of the networks. He reported that the Viet Cong had invaded the American Embassy in Saigon during TET of 1968 but the story was inaccurate. While the Viet Cong did penetrate the perimeter walls of the grounds and did get onto the Embassy property, they did not get inside the building because of the bravery of the American Military Police guarding it.

Yes, a fine hair to split, but a reporter, a "war correspondent" ought to be able to figure that out and get the story right. This wasn’t his only mistake that has enter the cultural fabric of America thanks to Arnett.

He is also famous for quoting an American soldier who said that it was a shame they had to destroy the village to save it... except that wasn’t quite right either.

He reported on the siege at Ben Tre. The Viet Cong overran the city and isolated the American advisors in a small compound. The VC used captured artillery trying to kill or dislodge the advisors. Their shelling killed many civilians in the city. Major Phil Cannella led the group of advisors defending the small outpost.

Eventually, the Navy sent gunboats to assist Cannella and tanks and soldiers of the Army’s 9th ID broke the siege. The damage to the city had been done by the VC, not the Americans. Cannella, in talking to Arnett, made it clear that the Americans, in defending the city, had not inflicted the damage, but it was a shame that some of it was destroyed.

Arnett reported that Air Force major, Chester L. Brown, had said that it was a shame that some of the village had been destroyed trying to save it. The implication was that it was Americans who had done the damage. Arnett attributed the quote to the wrong man and let the incorrect implication slide.

How does all this relate to the topic here. It points out the hypocrisy of the media. They can use hidden cameras to expose cheating automobile mechanics and super markets that repackage out of date product, but let a hidden camera expose someone they like, such as NPR, and it becomes unethical.

"The tapes were edited," they scream.

"The whole story wasn’t broadcast," they claim.

And yet, that is exactly what they have done in the past. They have been caught in some wholly false stories and yet they sit in their smug newsrooms and condemn someone for doing exactly what they have been doing.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. There should be a strong press. There should be an outside watchdog on the government. But when that watchdog begins to lick the hand of one political agenda, then it has lost its way and its mandate.

So, I laugh at the press complaining about ethics. I laugh at the press for complaining about editing a story. I laugh at their discomfort in this story. Maybe they should take a look at themselves and see if they haven’t been guilty of a little bit of ethics violation themselves.