Published On: Fri, Dec 9th, 2016

Now that everyone is a journalist (I)

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Investigative journalism is difficult but essential

Investigative journalism is difficult but essential

FRIDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu

(08035892325 sms only)

‘North gets lion’s share in police recruitment’.
This was one of the front page stories of the Daily Sun’s edition of yesterday (). And which obviously was an extension of the divisive media narrative about the alleged ethno-regional bias of the Buhari administration in the distribution of state resources and opportunities. The sharing was done per local government, and the North –having more such councils- naturally had a couple more than the number allocated to the South from the 10,000 Police Recruitment exercise.
And which, by the way should, logically too, have obviated the need for a screaming headline by any newspaper insinuating ethno-regional imbalance. And just as the explanation by government too that the distribution of job opportunities under the nPower… was ‘residency’ and not ‘origin-based’, should have obviated the need for the North to protest the existence especially of South-Eastern names on the list of many of its LGs.
By the way, if the virtue of having members of other ethnic groups benefit from their ‘residency’ status in our midst, is strictly ‘its own reward’ –as ‘virtue always is-’ the North should lose nothing by being eminently assimilating when others are eminently incapable of being equally as virtuous. But the ethno-regional character of our polity is not the subject of this piece. The agenda-setting mischief of the media is.
The media -mainstream and online- by what we report or what we choose to ignore; by what we give prominence to or what we deliberately conceal; by what we luridly sensationalize or what we selfishly play down, are the reason for the unending ethno-regional schisms that have continued to define the character of our national life.
It is said that ‘The truth you tell with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent”. Meaning, for example, that if you tell a ‘truth’ with a motive to stir up controversy, of a fact then ‘stirring up controversy’ –and not telling a truth- is what you should be credited with. Just as I think former CBN Governor and Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido should be credited with ‘embarrassing’ Buhari’s Government if, and only if, the economic ‘truth’ he told recently about unethical Government-CBN relationship, was with a motive to embarrass it -and not a genuine desire to correct a systemic wrong.
And although you can neither disprove the claim of Buhari-bashers to altruistic motive whenever they purport to tell truth to power, nor can you, conversely, prove their ill-intention, yet no one needs be a journalist to tell when the media is reporting even the ‘truth’ with a motive to stir up controversy. Yes it is true that the North had more police slots allocated to it than the South, but the Daily Sun’s reporting of that ‘truth’ was evidently with a motive to stir up controversy.
And yes, some species of ‘truth’ are inherently debate-evocating; meaning that no matter how they are told, they are more likely to provoke dispute than they may be even to right wrongs or to establish an enduring reality. But generally it is in the nature of ‘truth’ -no matter how it is told- to banish falsehood and even to put liars to shame. Yet we do not always tell ‘truth’ merely to put liars to shame as we do to set the records straight and where necessary even to remedy wrong.
Yet it is to the mainstream –and not online- media that the aphorism is instructive which asserts that ‘The truth you tell with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent’. Because the online media is essentially –and thus incorrigibly- an outlaw. It can neither be exhorted to know the rules and the ethics of journalism nor can it be compelled to live by them. The online media lives by a totally different kind of creed, which argues that ‘one do not have to be truthful to be virtuous’. To associate ‘falsehood’ with ‘virtue’ is no less sinful than to smuggle the ‘union of a man and a man’ into the definition of marriage.
To suggest that one does not have to be truthful to be virtuous, is to suggest that all that cometh to a fisherman’s net has to be ‘fish’. Yet the Online media is even more forthrightly proud of its outlaw-credo than the mainstream is consistent in its fidelity and fiduciary to time-honored ethics of the journalism profession. Whereas the online media makes no pretence about its objective to ‘misinform’, ‘mis-educate’ and ‘entertain’, the mainstream media still pretends to ‘inform’, ‘educate’ and ‘entertain’.
Journalism generally, unlike other professions, is essentially doomed –unfortunately- to its self-harming porous borders. Ironically, all in fact is now fish that cometh to its net. Virtually every character, without pre-qualification, has always been employable as a journalist. And with the advent of the internet now, the madness is made even easier: every phone user has now become a journalist. And soon online media will be only too happy to sing the nunc dimitis of the journalism profession.
With the advent of online media all hope that someday, journalism may have its own Trump to worry about how to wall-up its porous borders is lost for good. With online media even the mainstream media is beginning to reassert pride in the business of stirring up controversy rather that publishing facts.
The power of the media as much as it is a veritable source for good, is potentially also a force for evil. It is at once an antidote where it is deployed with a conscience, as it is also venom if applied irresponsibly. Either way it is a power already unleashed and at work. And although Daniel Boorstin was being mischievous when he joked that “it’s the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, yet what journalism does nowadays is to further ‘afflict’ ‘the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable”.
Newton Minow, President John Kennedy’s Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in a meeting with America’s National Association of Broadcasters said about the power of the media: “Your industry possesses the most powerful voice…. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership”. And he warned that “just as history will decide whether the leaders of today’s world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind’s benefit, so will history decide whether (the media) employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or debase them”. “Never” he said “have so few owed so much to so many”
Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro T Agnew, who was credited with the once popular blast on the American media as ‘an effete corps of impudent snobs’, in his comments on the power of the media, said “No medium has a more profound influence over public opinion. Nowhere in our system are there fewer checks on vast power. So nowhere should there be more conscientious responsibility exercised than by the news media”.
And to this he too added: ‘We would never trust such power over public opinion in the hands of an unelected government –it is time we questioned it in the hands of a small and unelected elite.’ –the media he meant.
Ironically Nixon was soon to walk himself into the ethical minefield of investigative journalism, at the infamous Watergate scandal. And media ethicists claimed that the collapse of the Nixon Administration ignited by the seemingly innocuous sparks of investigative journalism was one of the earliest and most celebrated contributions of journalism to democracy.
Also Napoleon Bonaparte, about the power of the media said “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations”, but then he quickly added: “Four hostile newspapers are to be feared than a thousand bayonets.’
And so the question has been asked through the ages: ‘how has the media utilized or how is the media utilizing this vast power’. Is this awesome power being exercised with equally awesome responsibility? Many including some reputable journalists themselves do not believe that the power of the media is being used conscientiously.
Playwright-Journalist-Diplomat Clare Boothe Luce, herself at various times editor of the American Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines and wife to Henry Robinson Luce –the Publisher who cofounded Time Magazine and also started both Fortune and Life magazines- believed that on a global scale the vast power of the media is equally vastly abused and in most climes even grossly debased. When invited to address the Women’s National Press Club as far back as 1960 she spoke about the gradual debasement of what she called the “masculine prerogative of the media”, which she referred to as that primary duty “to educate, inform, engage the interest of, and guide the minds of free men and women in a great democracy”.
And Virginia Whitehouse, an Associate Professor of Communications Studies Whitehouse College, Washington once asked the inevitable question: if journalists are the watch dogs of the society, who watches the watch dog?: -who regulates the regulator? Or should the regulator remain unregulated? “When journalists do their jobs in a way that causes more havoc than good to members of the public” she asked “who calls them to order?”
Should there be external checks on the media to ensure that they do not abuse this power or should the media be left unfettered and unshackled in the hope that the media will self-regulate itself by the observance of self imposed ethics and codes of practice?
The media is considered the fourth Estate of the realm after the Executive, the Legislature and the judiciary. And whereas these first three arms of government are constitutionally interdependent and in constant virtual checks and balance, the media is largely unchecked by the routine operations of the other three estates, other than by the judicial process whenever –that is if ever- aggrieved members of the public sue to assert their constitutional right to privacy.
The media is uniquely self-checking and self-balancing. But the constitutional guarantee of freedom given to the media is essentially an opportunity for a rather queer type of self-discipline namely as Clemenceau put it, an opportunity “voluntarily to assume responsibility”.
Nicholas Johnson, visiting Prof of Law, University of Iowa College of Law in a piece titled ‘Defining the Land of the Fourth Estate’ observed that the presumption against regulation of the press especially in the laws of democratic states, results from the “bruising and bitter struggles waged to protect press freedom (on the one hand) and (on the other) to contain the excesses of irresponsible journalism”.
He argued that the independent judiciary especially in the U.S. has always acted on the side of press freedom so much that it is deemed better, judicially, for society to cope with the excesses of a free media than in regulating to curtail those excesses, media freedom is imperiled. For then there will be none to subpoena political power to account.
Freedom of the press, ironically, is said to belong not to the press but to the people. It is a public trust reposed in the media to be enjoyed not by the press but by the people. And thus said the Code of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, ASNE: “it must be defended against encroachment or assault from any quarters, public or private”. That journalists must be constantly alert to see that “the public’s business is conducted in public” and “must be vigilant against all who would exploit the press for selfish purposes, including from amongst themselves”.

To be concluded

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