Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Big problem with big media

Today I read about director Amir Bar-Lev's documentary looking at what he alleges is a coverup of the truth surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, an NFL star who quit his professional football career to serve his country as a soldier. In 2004, he died in a "friendly fire" incident - but that was not the initial report, thus the headline The Tillman Story is a scathing indictment of the US government.

The key quote from this story is:
"Perhaps the most disturbing aspect ofThe Tillman Story is how much incriminating footage Bar-Lev was able to find. There are even scenes from a congressional hearing in which government officials ranking as high as then-defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld lied about knowing the cause of Tillmans death and were not only cleared of taking responsibility, but werent even properly questioned about the issue.
" 'None of that footage was difficult to obtain, which in itself is a tragedy, said Bar-Lev. When people see some of the clips that we have, theyll probably think that we got it from some Deep Throat garage in a paper bag or something. Nothing could be further from the truth. We got this footage from the mainstream press archives. Why that stuff ended up on the cutting room floor of the major networks, I think speaks to one of the larger concerns that the film hopes to address'," (my emphasis).

And so, we have yet another concrete example of a real problem with modern big media, which we've previously discussed - big media is conflicted.

The concept of a free press is critical to a free society. The media should be unencumbered with obligation to the government. It should remain a tool of a free society to, among other things, guard against an oppressive government by disseminating information to empower citizens to make informed decisions, especially about its representative, elected leaders.

Thomson Reuters, in its Trust Principles, sets forth in meaningful language its fundamental obligation and commitment to "safeguard our independence and integrity and avoid any bias which may stem from control by specific individuals or interests."

According to Bar-Lev, Tillman's family says that the American government put "public relations ahead of the truth". What should be alarming to a free society is the apparent complicity of the major networks to edit out so much available truth in order to fashion the fictitious "story" for public consumption, a story that does not transparently present the extent of the government's knowledge of the events leading to Tillman's death but instead obscures it from view and alleviates the government's accountability to its citizens, vis a vis "government of the people, for the people, by the people."

Pat Tillman was a person whose public record spoke of a "down home" integrity. In an age when money talks and loyalty is to the highest bidder, Tillman is reported to have turned down a five year, $9 million contract offer from the St. Louis Rams to stick with his Arizona Cardinals and his salary of $512,000. After the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, Tillman finished out the season, turned down a three year, $3.6 million dollar contract offer from the Cardinals to enlist and serve his country.

In other words, Tillman gave up a life of riches and  the adoration of football fans to put himself in harm's way for higher ideals. He ultimately sacrificed his life for what he believed a worthy cause - freedom. Government, media and society itself - we - should so value the freedom for which he died.

Governments can get off-track. It's the function of a free press to empower citizens to hold the government accountable. Freedom is supported by a free press.  Government, in getting off-track, would naturally seek control of the press. In totalitarian states, the press is one of the first institutions to be assumed. But of course - a free press should subject a government to its citizens. If a government is seeking to subject its citizens, the press must be pulled under auspice.

America was founded on principles specifically adopted and adapted to champion freedom, which is why freedom of the press was etched into its very constitution, its national DNA. It's a part of what makes America, America. Of course, America is not the only country with a free press component to its constitutional documents. Canada, for one example, also has a free press component to its constitution, and the aforementioned Thomson Reuters was once two separate companies that merged in 2008 - the Thomson half is Canadian, its global headquarters were in Toronto.

But, given that America blazed the trail in 1776, almost 100 years before Canada, and its Constitution and Amendments continue to inform thought on political philosophy, this sordid episode is a particularly acute failure of the "experiment".

If there is anything redeeming about this story, it's that it could have come out at all, by the efforts of an individual, without fear of reprisal. The concept of freedom of the press does indeed empower any individual to investigate and speak freely about the findings, which is all the more important and necessary if big media fails to live up to higher ideals.

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