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On Second Thought

By Ben L. Kaufman · June 2nd, 2004 · Media, Myself & I
When CityBeat asked me to write this column, it was clear that my brief included dailies, weeklies, radio and TV news, Cincinnati Magazine, CityBeat and Cin Weekly.

Although CityBeat's franchise is local civic affairs, arts and entertainment, it is not parochial. National news media affect us indirectly and, before long, directly through local papers and broadcasters.

I am not inventing media criticism in Cincinnati. Predecessors include Jon C. Hughes in the now-defunct Clifton-Vine Reporter and former Enquirer colleagues John Caldwell, then the paper's ombudsman; Felix Winternitz in Cincinnati Magazine; and Lew Moores in CityBeat.

Because you'll imagine or perceive my biases early, here is something less than full disclosure:

· I embrace an expansive view of individual rights under the First Amendment. If a story is newsworthy and any harm it might cause can be justified, it should be printed or broadcast. If it proves to be wrong, our system provides correctives, although the victims sometimes find recourse inadequate.

In this context, no one has said it better than Tony Benn, who spent 50 years as a Labour member of Great Britain's Parliament: "Information is the oxygen of democracy."

· My preference is for print when I need information. Print is more varied and concrete and often more thorough than radio or TV news.

However, I treasure the reporting of our uncensored commercial and public radio and TV when events require. Can anyone doubt the power of watching the second jetliner fly into the World Trade Center? In the same way, no print medium can match WVXU's nonstop coverage of major events when it goes 24/7.

· When I say I'm a liberal, I think of Harry Truman, Hubert H. Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson, not Jerry Brown, Jane Fonda or Howard Dean. If I say I'm a conservative, I think of Republican legislators who supported the Marshall Plan after World War II and the Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s and conservatives today who challenge the continuing erosion of our Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure.

· I approach orthodoxies, power structures, bureaucracies and authorities with skepticism, expecting them to put their interests before mine.

· I'm unhappy with reporters who know so much that they "write with authority" and omit sources of facts and opinions. Identified sources are the font of their authority, not the fact they work for a paper or broadcaster.

· Relevant memberships are American Civil Liberties Union and Sierra Club.

My regular sources include friends and colleagues in the trade, CityBeat, local TV news and dailies, local news on WLW radio and WVXU, National Public Radio on WVXU, WGUC and WNKU, The New York Times, The Nation, The Progressive, The Weekly Standard, The Economist, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Columbia Journalism Review and The New Republic. On the Internet, I read Poynter, Editor & Publisher and other Web sites dedicated to the news media, plus London's Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Sun and Mirror, Voice of America and English-language dailies and Web sites abroad.

Obviously I'm not going to tell you what to think. I'd lose both of my readers in a moment. Instead, I hope to influence, at times, what you think about. For instance:

Are unnamed sources vital to gain information that audiences need?

Rarely. The New York Times has run aground on this again with its mishandled weapons of mass destruction stories. There and elsewhere, unnamed sources manipulate target audiences through the reporter without being accountable if things go wrong. Getting on-the-record sources and information can be hard work. But they often can be found by using the off-the-record source as a starting point. Unnamed sources frequently suggest a lazy reporter or a reporter who wants to be seen as an insider in whom important people trust.

Will I use unnamed sources in this column?

Yes, if there is an overwhelming need and I have found no other way to get it before my deadline. I will tell you why, as fully as I can, without compromising the source's anonymity.

Are some images too violent to use in a local daily paper or on a local TV newscast?

Yes. I would not show the decapitation of Danny Pearl or Nick Berg, although I would show the taped executions up to the point of decapitation. Americans have been protected from such ugliness for too long by squeamish news media. I would show charred bodies of civilian contractors hanging from Iraqi bridge trusses, but we have seen enough prisoner abuse photos from Iraq. Yes, such photos are upsetting. But if we can't handle the information they convey, how can we handle the real burden of war?

Can we trust reporting in the news media?

Generally yes, but we should not accept any of it uncritically. That is nothing new. Today a more urgent task is to discern between reporting and commentary, especially on cable TV and talk radio.

What about the liberal news media?

I'm still looking for it. None of the major corporations that own TV networks or dominate AM radio is politically or socially liberal. Huge corporations that own most dailies generally are not known to be liberal. Most editorial pages endorse Republicans or conservative Democrats. The danger is when Americans believe this myth and shun sources of information they need to be informed citizens and voters.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University. He is a retired reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer.


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