Media vs. truth: If public listens truth can’t lose

MBy Stephanie Spadaro EVANSTON, Ill. (U-WIRE)

Maybe I’m a coward. I don’t want to debate the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because I don’t know whether Saddam Hussein had any.

However, some students at Northwestern are bolder than me. They claim Hussein destroyed all of his weapons in 1998 and the U.S. government will plant weapons in Iraq to save face in the international community.

Somehow I doubt they verified this.

So why do students pre-emptively insist the government will lie to them?

I always thought our free press protected us from government-sponsored lies. After all, the networks would be up in arms if President George W. Bush lied to the nation. Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, on the other hand, didn’t have to worry about CNN contradicting his “news” reports.

When I interned this summer at the U.S. State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, I was (perhaps naively) surprised to discover the extent to which government officials are coached to “stay on message” and present the administration’s spin, ignoring questions posed by reporters.

I operated the camera as ambassadors and their public-diplomacy officers perfected their delivery. The media coach criticized them for responding directly to reporters’ questions, instead of using the reporter as a forum to present the government-approved statement.

The mock interviews reminded me of a courtroom battle, with reporters and officials each seeking to persuade the viewer of their own agenda.

Our legal system assumes the truth will surface as the defense and prosecution duke it out in the courtroom. Dare we apply the same principle to media relations with the government?

Eason Jordan, CNN’s chief news executive, announced that his network had covered up stories about the atrocities under Hussein’s regime in an April 11 New York Times column entitled “The News We Kept to Ourselves.” This is problematic because Jordan doesn’t tell us what other stories are being silenced for profit and ratings.

“I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me,” he wrote. “Now that Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone, I suspect we will hear many, many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis about the decades of torment. At last, these stories can be told freely.”

In his column, he explained the network censored these stories because they feared their journalists either would be killed or lose access to Iraq.

“We’re supposed to be skeptical about military strategy and statements,” said Richard Schwarzlose, a Northwestern journalism professor. “But we find, alas, that the very people we have always served – our readers, listeners and viewers – would rather have patriotic reporting than hard-edged independence.”

Still, I feel comfort knowing that the unelected, high-powered media titans in New York and Atlanta cannot just tell the public whatever they want. If we are displeased with NBC, we can vote for CBS with a click of the remote.

The truth will win out eventually, as long as we challenge assumptions and are skeptical about our information sources.

Call me a coward, but at least my opinions are informed.