Will speak truth to power for food

embassy1.jpg  New U.S. embassy in Baghdad; as big as Vatican City

Since 1976 media researchers at Sonoma State University have run Project Censored as they call their annual effort to rank “the most important news stories that were under-covered, glossed over or ignored by the country’s major media outlets.” The Project recently published its 2008 list and two entries impressed me with numbers:

  • In an October 2006 article for the Oakland-based CorpWatch, former California journalist David Phinney described the building of the new United States Embassy in Baghdad, a “$592 million, 104-acre fortress equal in size to the Vatican City.” 

  • A SourceWatch report about a roundup of more than 30,000 fugitives in “three federally coordinated mass arrests . . .  between April 2005 and October 2006 . .  The operations directly involved over 960 agencies (state, local, and federal) and were the brainchild of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and US Marshal’s Director Ben Reyna.”

The list makes sober reading, which is why muckraking of this sort has such a hard time making its way into mainstream media. Maybe it isn’t censorship so much as disinterest.When people interact with media they’re probably thinking, “Maybe I can kill a few minutes,” rather than, “What burning issue awaits.”

Hard news is also costly, time consuming and often dangerous to gather. Such stories may be noble. But the social contract that used to support public service journalism back in the days of say, Walter Cronkite — a Project Censored supporter – is broken. Corporate media once enjoyed the profits to justify noblesse oblige. Now they’re in a squeeze. Moreover their audiences have changed. One new study referred to “the promiscuous news audience“ in which people read free news off web sites and flit around at will. Why would any one news outlet develop expensive knowledge that might benefit the body politic in some diffuse way, but not benefit its brand even with reader loyalty?

Rather than merely criticize the shortcomings of mass media we must create alternatives to fill the watchdog role mass media have become unable or unwilling to fill. Networks of specialty blogs will help. These specialistists will join the think-tanks and the academics and public policy institutes that generate expertise. But there must be a medium to diffuse this knowledge into the popular thinking. Again this presupposes the public is interested in those topics deemed important as opposed to which movie they should attend.  

All of this spells tough time for journalists, of whom I would like to consider myself one. People like me got into the business to save the world. Nowadays we’re lucky to have jobs. Seriously. Remember “America What Went Wrong” the award-winning 1992 newspaper series? Its authors, Donald Barlett and James Steele, got pink slips last May.

Journalism once had slogans of assurance like, “all the news that’s fit to print.” These days, in keeping with times, its mantra might be: Will speak truth to power for food.

(Postscript: Thinking a photo of the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would be a good illustration for this posting, I searched one and found a USA Today story on the project. It, too, cited 104-acres but compared it to 80 footbal fields; not as powerful an image as the Vatican City reference but no longer is the story completely “censored”  either.)