Old Patriot's Pen

Personal pontifications of an old geezer born 200 years too late.

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Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States

I've been everywhere That was the title of a hit country-and-western song from the late 1950's, originally sung by Hank Snow, and made famous by Johnny Cash. I resemble that! My 26-year career in the Air Force took me to more than sixty nations on five continents - sometimes only for a few minutes, other times for as long as four years at a time. In all that travel, I also managed to find the perfect partner, help rear three children, earn more than 200 hours of college credit, write more than 3000 reports, papers, documents, pamphlets, and even a handful of novels, take about 10,000 photographs, and met a huge crowd of interesting people. I use this weblog and my personal website here to document my life, and discuss my views on subjects I find interesting.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The WORD is "Accountable"

Kathleen Parker, in her latest column on Town Hall, issues a cautionary tale. It's well and good that she does, but it's a one-sided cautionary tale that doesn't quite fit the circumstances she mentions.

With the recent toppling of CBS's Dan Rather and now CNN's top news executive, Eason Jordan, I think we can declare without fear of contradiction that rigor mortis is settling over the carcass of the Fourth Estate.
I make this pronouncement without pleasure, and in fact, suggest that we're really witnessing a double funeral. One is for traditional journalism as the omnipotent gatekeeper of information. As bloggers - authors of Web logs - have gleefully pointed out the past several days, everyone with access to the Internet is now a journalist.

The Fourth Estate has been operating as a Fifth Column for several decades now, and there are quite a number of its members that need to be taken down. Newspapers, radio and television journalism, and news magazines still have a major role to play in acquiring, writing, editing, and presenting news. The big change is that they no longer have the freedom to present that news with their customary slant, or to refrain from mentioning anything that might bring adverse attention to what they write. They can no longer expect to get away with warping or twisting the truth, or to get away with telling outright lies. They also can't get away with defaming any group without having their facts checked, and if those facts are wrong - or as in the case of Eason Jordan, don't exist, being called to task for it. It's called "accountability". It's a marvelous concept that the Fourth Estate has been able to evade for decades.

Given the "instanaeity" of the bloggers' electronic encampment, known as the "blogosphere" - enabling real-time posting of news and commentary - newspapers and even broadcast media have become the news cycle's Sunday drivers.

As a longtime observer of the blog phenomenon - awed by the volcanic energy and talent that erupts by the nanosecond and flows without pause - I'm a fan. But I'm also wary of such unbridled power. For all their attractive swashbuckling and bravura, bloggers also can become a cyber-mob that acts, as mobs do, without conscience or restraint.

Please give me three examples of Legacy Media acting with legitimate conscience or restraint within the last month. Don't try to feed me a bunch of crap about something done to keep the legacy media from looking bad, or something to promote a political agenda (like the Media's love affair with Howard Dean), but something resembling true conscientious behavior on a media story, or restraint in delivering the dirt on anyone even remotely connected with the Republican Party or George Bush, religion, or conservative thought or behavior. I won't hold my breath.

Thus, the other funeral is, I fear, for our freedom of speech. Not the kind we once worried would be quashed by government jackboots, but the sort that restricts the very thing bloggers represent - the freewheeling, unfettered expression of thoughts and ideas without fear of censure. Or without the life-altering, career-busting personal demolitions we've witnessed recently.

I hate to bust your bubble, Kathleen, but there's NEVER been a period when people have exercised "the freewheeling, unfettered expression of thoughts and ideas without fear of censure", especially in public. Words have consequences, as does behavior, and even FAILING to act. There has never been a time in our history when one group hasn't attacked the ill-chosen words and deeds of others. The "Blogosphere" didn't bring down Dan Rather - Dan Rather's behavior brought him down. The Blogosphere merely pointed out that he was perpetrating a fraud in the midst of an election. CBS sealed the consequences by refusing to admit that they had been overzealous, and fell for a fraud.

Eason Jordan wasn't forced to resign because the Blogosphere hounded him from office, but because he made a stupid statement - one he'd made before, also in a foreign setting - and was called to account for it. Again, it wasn't the statement that caused his problems, but his refusal to acknowledge he'd made a gross mistake, and retract his words. The cover-up caused his problems, not the words themselves. The owners of CNN decided a man that went around making up stuff and accusing the US military of criminal behavior in a time of war wasn't worth keeping on their staff, even if he was a "respected name in television news". Howell Raines ended his career at the New York Times because he didn't keep Jayson Blair from making up stories. The Blogosphere discovered the truth, these people were held accountable for what they said, and they ended up resigning in disgrace.

Ward Churchill is a different case. The first outrage was over what he said. That called attention to him. That wasn't bad - he said a lot of things I and most other intelligent Americans couldn't agree with, but that was ok - he had the right to say them. The rest of us have the right to debunk what he says, and to tell him his words are rude and offensive, but that's not censorship - that's just response. The real problems for Churchill started when the Blogosphere forced attention on him and his past, and discovered that his the majority of his "history" was fabricated: he wasn't a Native American, his books and papers were not truly "scholarly", he made up a large portion of the "facts" he quoted, and he plagarized the works of others. He's now being held accountable for his words and deeds, and will probably end up being disgraced and forced to leave the University of Colorado and possibly even the teaching profession because of it.

By contrast, Jordan said something stupid, even indefensible, but his comments were in much different circumstances - during an off-the-record panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. A couple of weeks later, following intense criticism, he resigned his post.

What Jordan essentially said, for those who were in orbit the past two weeks - or who rely strictly on mainstream media for information - was that the U.S. military had targeted journalists in Iraq, where some 36 journalists have been killed since 2003.

When challenged on the spot by members of the audience and other panelists, including U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, Jordan backed off. Although a transcript of the discussion has not been made available, Jordan's subsequent explanation was that he was trying to make the point that some journalists had died not as "collateral damage," but because of U.S. military carelessness, recklessness or some derivative thereof.
Maybe there's more to the story; maybe his star was already in descent and this was the excuse CNN had been looking for. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that most of us say dim things, especially in relaxed settings that are understood to be off the record, that aren't meant for global parsing.

Eason Jordan's problem was that he repeatedly used a lie - that American military troops were deliberately targeting, killing, and torturing journalists in Iraq - to curry favor with members of the European and Middle Eastern community who maintain a high level of anti-American sentiment. He said it at Davos in front of some pretty important people, including Barney Frank and Chris Dodd. He said something similar in Portugal at another meeting of important foreign dignitaries. He was accosted by people who demanded facts. He tried to stonewall, and it didn't work. The majority of the QUALITY people in the Blogosphere demanded that Jordan produce evidence to back up his claim (a reasonable request, IMHO), or issue a full retraction. He refused to do either. THAT, not the actual utterances, were what led to his "resignation".

Saying something stupid off the top of your head isn't career-killing; stonewalling, refusing to admit that what you said, and using undue influence to bury or distort your words, is. I respect any person with the integrity to admit they were mistaken, and who issues a sincere retraction and apology. Most Americans do.

The fact that the mainstream media didn't initially report Jordan's remarks probably has more to do with this recognition than with any attempt to protect fellow journalists, as was charged after a blogger broke the story. "Off the record" means you're allowed to say what you think with impunity and live to see your next paycheck.

Wrong. Lying with impunity used to be something people got away with, which is why they could continue to get a paycheck. It's also impossible for me to accept that anyone with an ounce of intelligence would accuse anyone of criminal behavior - and deliberately targeting journalists is criminal behavior - and believe that they could get away with it IN FRONT OF A US SENATOR AND A CONGRESSMAN, especially ones from the party out of power at the moment. That strikes me as monumental conceit, and a healthy dose of idiocy to boot. Your characterization of Eason Jordan's behavior doesn't match the facts that Michelle Malkin has unearthed from three very reliable sources.

Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at, told media critic Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that "off the record" is dead. Jarvis, who also said he was after the truth, not Jordan's head, may be right. But as we expand the boundaries of speech - inviting all comers to the virtual newsroom and reporting every utterance without contextual distinction - we may find that we no longer feel free to speak freely.

If the accountability that the Blogosphere brings to the world - not just journalism but every facet of life - means that some people "no longer feel free to speak freely", then perhaps that's the price to pay to keep people like Dan Rather, Eason Jordan, Howell Raines, Jayson Blair, Ward Campbell, and hundreds of others from telling outright lies and perpetrating fraud without fear of contradiction.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice Fisk, Old Patriot. Always a pleasure to read you, either here or at Rantburg.

6:43 PM  

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