I recently came acroos a Le Monde Diplomatique blog post titled Three Digital Myths discussing the phenomenon of Wikileaks and social media. Towards the end of the post the writer Christian Christensen, as an argument for the continuing power and influence of mainstream journalism, offered this statement from the Executive Editor of The New York Times explaining the newspapers discussions with the US Administration regarding the recently released Afghan War Logs:
The administration, while strongly condemning WikiLeaks for making these documents public, did not suggest that The Times should not write about them. On the contrary, in our discussions prior to the publication of our articles, White House officials, while challenging some of the conclusions we drew from the material, thanked us for handling the documents with care, and asked us to urge WikiLeaks to withhold information that could cost lives. We did pass along that message.”
What took me by surprise was the open admission by the Executive Editor of one of America’s most influential newspapers of the close, collaborative and inter-twined relationship with the Government and the journalists. This is a shocking admission, and I would argue, as scandalous as anything that the Wikileaks revealed about our failed conflicts ‘out there’. Here is a newspaper, one that spends millions convincing us of its relevance, independence and integrity, admitting to its close and cozy connections with the very institutions we assume the paper scrutinizes, criticizes, challenges, questions, and keeps in check.
It reminded me of another instance of such misguided understanding of the role and goals of a journalist. It reminded me of something that Russell Baker wrote in a New York Review of Books piece called Goodbye To Newspapers:
Assignment to Washington is one of the highest prizes a newspaper has to offer, and not surprisingly the Washington press is an elite group: well-educated, well-paid, talented, at ease among the mighty, a bit smug perhaps about knowing secrets others don’t, but for the most part sensitive to an obligation to keep the public informed without fear or prejudice. Yet they failed this obligation during the Bush years, the authors of When The Press Fails contend, partly because of their tendency to defer excessively to power.
Their “deference to power” was not a newly hatched product of the Bush era, according to the authors, but a habit “deeply ingrained and continually reinforced in the culture and routines of mainstream journalism.” It is a habit that makes Washington journalists vulnerable to manipulation by the powerful and indifferent to dissent and protest. Dissenters and protesters are often dismissed as “mavericks,” suggesting they are not to be taken too seriously.
A ‘deference’ to power – the pathology that has drained the life out of American journalism and American democracy. The one fundamental characteristic I hold as most alien to us Americans has become the cornerstone of an industry drunk on profits and market share value. And in fact, my immediate next through jumped to a hilarious, cantankerous and insightful piece by Mark Slouka called Democracy & Deference where he had some choice thoughts such as:
What kind of culture defines “maturity” as the time when young men and women sacrifice principle to prudence, when they pledge allegiance to the boss in the name of self-promotion and “realism”? What kind of culture defines adulthood as the moment when the self goes underground? One answer might be a military one. The problem is that while unthinking loyalty to one’s commanding officer may be necessary in war, it is disastrous outside of it. Why? Because loyalty, by definition, qualifies individualism, discouraging the expression of individual opinion, recasting honesty as a type of betrayal. Because loyalty to power, rather than to what one believes to be true or right, is fatally undemocratic, and can lead to the most horrendous abuses.
Slouka is relentless in his conviction that we as a nation, and as a people, have been bred to be subservient, and trained to surrender our dissent and critical mind in the ‘service of the nation. As he concludes while trying to offer reasons for why we have ended up where we have he states:
There’s another possibility. Maybe we’re not out on the street protesting this administration’s abuses of power because we’re no longer the people we once were, because we’ve been effectively bred for docility. Equality, Tocqueville pointed out, “insinuates deep into the heart and mind of every man some vague notion and some instinctive inclination toward political freedom.” And inequality? Might it not, by precisely the same calculus, insinuate “some instinctive inclination” toward political tyranny? Of course it might. Once the idea of inequality is allowed to take root, a veritable forest of ritualized gestures and phrases springs up to reinforce it. The notion that some bow and others are bowed to comes to seem natural; the cool touch of the floor against our forehead begins to feel right: from classroom to corporate cubicle to the halls of Congress, deferential way leads on to deferential way, and at the end of the road, as Tocqueville foresaw, stands a baaa-ing polity “reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
Which of course provides the heady cheer-leading to the release of Harvard John F. Kennedy School’s report about how beholden and craven American media is to the instructions of American government officials. As Glenn Greenwald of Salon points out while speaking about this report:
…the American establishment media is simply following in the path of the U.S. Government (which is why it’s the “establishment media”): the U.S. itself long condemned waterboarding as “torture” and even prosecuted it as such, only to suddenly turn around and declare it not to be so once it began using the tactic. That’s exactly when there occurred, as the study puts it, “a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding.” As the U.S. Government goes, so goes our establishment media…
…The behavior is even more egregious when government dictates (as of now, this is no longer torture) lead directly to the change in media behavior. And the ultimate effect of this joint government/media obfuscation is to further entrench the destructive notion that we’re different, exceptional, better, and therefore we deserve even a different language to describe what it is that we do. This Harvard study documents the exact process by which the political class convinces itself and others that bad and illegal things are, by definition, only what those Bad, Other Foreign Countries do, but never ourselves.
This is just another aspect of journalism that rarely gets discussed by photojournalists. That is, few if any discussions about the craft of photojournalism, and the way in which stories are produced, honestly reveal the entrenched relationship between the photographer, the story and the media outlet for which it is produced, or in which it is published. This issue has been on my mind since the recent production of Jodi Bieber’s piece on American wars and women’s liberty. See my earlier post called The Spotlight Of Humanity Or How We Are Told To Look Only Where They Tell Us To Look.
There isn’t a major photojournalist’s career that has been analyzed by carefully placing his/her works and productions in the context of the economic, corporate, and institutional frameworks it was produced it. We always paint the myth of the lone messiah, the individual eye and mind, the moral voice, working independent from its paymasters, its collaborators and its consumers. There is yet to be a serious, engaged, broad and multi-faceted analysis of photojournalism though I am not sure who will conduct it. We are still mired in a ‘heroic’ idea of the craft and its practitioners – ideas that gain new currency at such photojournalism events such as Visa Pour L’image where despite the overwhelming and overpowering presence of corporate and publishing bigwigs, the works and the photographers are carefully manufactured to be seen as ‘individuals’ and ‘moral forces’. All influencing forces – editorial directives, employment relationships, publication’s values and leanings, broader political atmosphere and prejudices etc. are carefully excised when discussing photojournalism, journalistic photography and photographers.
Perhaps its time to change this? Now, as the death of the craft is being announced only for the millionth time, we may have the space and the freedom to critique it and understand how its collaborations and dependencies to specific financial and publishing institutions is whats killing it!