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Sunday, July 10, 2011

All The News That Fits

Nancy Grace with open mouth
Although I reject the dangerous practice of drawing generalities from highly publicized criminal cases, the recent Casey Anthony trial had one salutary effect, at least for my consciousness raising.
I was exposed for the first time to Nancy Grace, who comments for HLN TV (a CNN affiliate). This woman is depicted as a "reporter" of the trial proceedings. In truth, she is a leader of a lynch mob. Her bias against the defense is open and vitriolic, amounting to self-righteous hatred.

Doing some research, I discovered that she had been a prosecutor in Atlanta for ten years, during which she was cited several times by Georgia appellate courts (not the most liberal forums one can find) for prosecutorial misconduct, including acts which concealed from the defense the presence of suspects other than the accused she was prosecuting, and for extreme and misleading arguments.

Later, when she turned to television "journalism" (the word sticks in my throat), she destroyed a mother of a missing child during an interview in which she implied that the woman was to blame for her child’s disappearance, after which the woman committed suicide. Grace reacted with pleasure, calling the suicide the product of a guilty conscience although the woman had never been accused by police of any wrongdoing.

Undeterred, Grace wrote a book in which she lambasted all criminal defense lawyer, calling them pigs and equating them to Nazis. The book thus sold well, even though it was later revealed that she had plagiarized whole chunks from other sources.

Grace is still employed, and in fact her broadcasts have high ratings.

Now, the news is full of reports regarding Rupert Murdoch’s run-ins with British politicians. The Australian "news magnate" whose American empire includes the Fox chain of television and radio channels as well as The Wall Street Journal (part of The Dow Jones Co.) and The New York Post, among others, shut down his British tabloid, The News Of The World, amid accusations that his employees had conducted a pattern of illicit activities, including hacking into the cellphone voicemails of murder victims.

The scandal exposed other practices of his papers involving politicians. The rag reveled in sex gossip, revealing the secret lives of celebrities, with "investigative" tactics that included paying informants for dirt and photos, secret taping, bribing, embarrassing. The Conservative Party prime minister admitted that he and his party’s reluctance to criticize Murdoch and his publications was in part due to their support.

The other part was fear, not just fear of opposition, but fear of being targeted by Murdoch and his tabloids. No public person is immune to ridicule if his or her private life is examined with the microscope. One woman MP who dared to criticize the tabloid on feminist grounds for exploiting female nudity was ridiculed mercilessly in the News Of The World.

This is not the first recorded instance of an overbearing press in the history of the world.

It should be remembered that these Murdoch tactics of intimidation were used in the 1950's to destroy the careers of any person accused or rumored to be communist, or socialist, or leftist, or pinko, or fellow traveler ... or a civil rights activist ... or trade union member ... or supporter of the ACLU

In the golden age of the movies, Frank Capra was the sentimental guardian of American values. His movies are remembered for their somewhat simplistic and optimistic view of American society. In a series of now classic films, he placed an idealistic and naive American against a powerful, cynical, manipulative tyrant.

In both "Meet John Doe" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" the bad guy was a corrupting newspaper publisher (both played by Edward Arnold) who aimed to subvert democracy and to gain power. (In the more humorous "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" press ridicule is depicted as responsible for helping a corrupt lawyer’s attempt to destroy the naive and idealistic Deeds who wants to give away his fortune to deserving unemployed men).

Capra’s model for these baddies was certainly W.R. Hearst, who was notorious for using the power of his news empire to destroy his enemies, whether political or personal, or just for the exercise. He understood that sensational accusation — whether accompanied by evidence or not — was good for circulation. His tabloids outdid his competitors in lurid misrepresentation, innuendo, patriotic humbug, jingoistic slanted reporting, and in creating stories where none really existed.

At its best, the press (now widened to include "media") have benefitted society. The Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century would not have achieved as much without the muckraking journalists in many cases leading the way to reform relating to issues such as food and drugs, working conditions, poverty, housing, child labor — reforms which in the 21st Century our corporate culture may finally get its wish list granted to reverse.

There have been important highlights in the television age. Ed Murrow famously exposed McCarthy’s evil. Walter Cronkite capped TV news coverage of Viet-Nam with his reporting and opinion. The Washington Post’s investigative reporters are justly credited with exposing Watergate. Occasional local and national reporting is worthy of the title "journalism".

The U.S. Supreme Court has given the First Amendment’s "press" and "speech" provisions a position of preference among the amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights. The court thus puts high barriers against censorship, even going so far as ruling recently that corporate contributions to political campaigns and violent video games are protected speech.

The reasoning for this is the idealistic dictum that goes as far back as the Enlightenment, that the free exchange of ideas is essential for a free society. Jefferson assumed that the more knowledge the better the chances for democracy to work: an educated and informed electorate would usually do the right thing.

Yet, until I researched Nancy Grace on the internet, I had read no newspaper or television reports disclosing her lack of credibility or her character. I wouldn’t expect that so-called respected news outlet, CNN, or investigating and exposing her flaws. After all, they own her and she makes money for them. But even competing media has not bothered to jump on this. MSNBC which shows such pleasure in nipping at FOX cable news for its transgressions, has not touched her. None of MSNBC’s liberal commentators have taken her on.

I suspect that the reason has something to do with a dogma of the news business that goes as far back as Pulitzer and Hearst. When reporting on criminal cases, the defendant is always presumed to be guilty. Almost a hundred years ago, Hearst’s tabloids famously destroyed Fatty Arbuckle who was tried (and eventually acquitted) of manslaughter in a sensational "Hollywood party" case.

One unanswered question is what effect the internet will have. Greg argues persuasively that the broadening of available sources of information is a net (no pun intended) positive. Since no Hearst or Murdoch can control the entire internet, I see his point. Attempts to commercialize, organize or censor the free flow of information is dangerous. It may soon become the only trustworthy source of free information.

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