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Media Beat

Journalists shouldn't avoid angering powerful people



Once in a while, I’ve been pleasantly surprised when an article I’ve written actually seems to achieve a key goal of independent journalism — what is sometimes called “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

The first time I can remember that happening came more than 40 years ago, when — just after getting out of junior high — I wrote an article for a weekly newspaper revealing that the school’s principal had banned possession of Mao’s “Little Red Book.” The principal responded to adverse public reaction by canceling the ban.

Suddenly — this was in the mid-1960s — McCarthyism seemed just a little bit deader. And for me, a young teenager with a budding interest in journalism, a light bulb went on. Wow, a little article can have a big impact!

Fifteen years later, I interviewed a Pentagon general about some documents I’d obtained. They showed dangerous instability in plastic explosives inside hundreds of nuclear warheads on Poseidon submarines.

One morning, when the story was about to go out via Pacific News Service, the general called me back. His tone was agitated. He wanted to make it crystal clear that the problematic explosive, LX-09, in no way made the nuclear warheads less reliable.

The general was at pains to emphasize that the warheads would detonate properly if the Pentagon ever fired those missiles. (That was supposed to be reassuring.) The general was doing what he could to influence my story. Clearly, he would have preferred that I not write it at all.

Such tensions are to be expected. While journalists might like someone in power to view them favorably, the journalists who let that affect what they do are going to limit their own potential to speak truth to — and about — power.

I’ve sensed this many times over the years. It’s often easy — perhaps too easy — to get to like people while interviewing them. And if those people have some sort of power, there may be an unconscious temptation to avoid antagonizing them.

Whether the interviewee is the mayor of a small town or the president of the United States, a journalist may wish to build a positive relationship. If the official has plums to hand out, the journalist might be eager for some goodies: whether in the form of leaks, exclusive interviews or some other discretionary offerings that could enhance professional standing in media circles.

In times of economic downturn, the pitfalls for journalism are apt to get steeper. And media institutions as well as individual practitioners find themselves in terrain with plenty of slippery slopes.

Even a few years ago, it was hard to imagine that

The New York Times would be publishing sizeable display advertisements on its front page. Now, that recent development is well on the way to seeming normal.

While many professions take commercialism and pursuit of the bottom line as a given, some are especially susceptible to corrosive effects. Health care and journalism come to mind.

If a medical provider decides to prescribe a medication, patients would greatly prefer to believe that the prescription was not influenced by promotional largesse of pharmaceutical firms. To the extent that the power of drug companies ends up tilting such decisions, the practice of medicine suffers. And, sometimes, so do patients.

If a journalist decides, even unconsciously, to contour a story in a certain way because of the influence of advertisers, the profession of journalism suffers. And the public suffers from the results.

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of using journalistic skills to bring important information into the light. The people we call “the framers” probably knew that when they decided what to put in the top spot on the Bill of Rights hit parade. It’s a right that we should never take for granted.

©2009 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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