Interviewing business man on press conference. Photo: iStock
Interviewing business man on press conference. Photo: iStock

To straighten the crooked
You must first do a harder thing –
Straighten yourself.
– The Buddha

CNN defending their reporter Jim Acosta’s shenanigans at a White House press conference on November 7 explains why journalism is suffering from a credibility crisis. For some of us, it seems, we journalists are the guardians of ethics for the cosmos, but nobody should dare point a finger at us for breaking the rules.

Press conferences have rules, even non-presidential ones. We avoid asking multiple questions to give colleagues a chance to ask their questions. Videos showed Acosta ignoring requests to stop asking more questions and then resisting the intern trying to take back the mike. CNN called the subsequent White House ban on Acosta an assault on press freedom, but Acosta was rightly called out for being rude.

In this new world of self-righteous journalism without self-examination, beware of calling a spade a spade, or calling a pot or kettle black, as some journalists may draw inaccurate inferences to hang you as an anti-pot or anti-kettle racist.

We rarely see reality as it is. Prejudices, likes and dislikes shape our perceptions, often infecting our view of people and the world around us

After 27 happy years as a journalist, I see my profession at times morphing into a theatre of the bizarre.

Without checking for accuracy, the context of quotes with the original source (social media platform, press release, etc), unwary people fall victim to the inaccurate, biased slanting of facts.

Our interpersonal communication often suffers from the use of imprecise words, emotional language, not clearly explaining what we mean – and then complications arise from assumptions, presumptions, incorrect inferences, and sometimes bias. How often in life are good relationships ruined by people jumping to the wrong conclusions?

We rarely see reality as it is. Prejudices, likes and dislikes shape our perceptions, often infecting our view of people and the world around us.

Miscommunication becomes worse when a biased media propagates inaccurate inferences. So if you are legitimately concerned about infiltration/illegal immigration (not immigration) into your country without a vetting process – the equivalent of strangers or criminals sneaking into your house – we condemn you for being anti-immigrant, a racist and a bigot.

A dangerously biased media can whip a country into a state of civil war frenzy, giving rise to violence and electoral fraud – with people carelessly flinging accusations, calling opponents “racists” or comparing them with Hitler.

To understand what “Hitler” really means, read CBS radio reporter William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: the millions murdered in death camps like Auschwitz and Einsatzgruppen SS killers smoking cigarettes while casually gunning down women and children.

For real racism, remember South Africa’s apartheid or India’s caste system. Or remember when captured World War II German sailors were permitted to eat in restaurants en route to prisoner-of-war camps in Utah and Georgia, but their US army African-American soldier escorts had to go to the back door.

Media freedom with responsibilities

Media freedom does not include freedom for us journalists to be biased, ignore professional basics such as keeping news reporting separate from opinion-page venting, or use anonymous “sources” in credibility-killing journalism.

The deeper concern is crooked media elements becoming tools to destabilize elected governments, enabling lethally corrupt puppets and deranged halfwits to gain power and cause great suffering.

The concern is that journalists will eventually be seen as little more than conmen if they don’t turn things around.

The biggest threat to media freedom is crooked journalism, not presidential tweets.

What happened to CNN is a warning. If this pioneer of 24/7 cable news were to write for Asia Times, then most of its current output would appear in the opinion section. Former veteran CNN host Larry King recently admitted that “CNN stopped doing news years ago.”

The journalism enemy within

The Trump presidency has pushed journalism into rare territory. We are not used to a novice politician striking back. Vote seekers are expected to be fearful of bad PR and woo media bigwigs and wealthy people who own or fund mouthpiece publications.

As a first-time candidate who largely funded his own campaign – and then donated his presidential salary of $400,000 a year – Donald Trump can do what few can: strongly and independently address politically incorrect issues and counter a dishonest media.

He has flaws and makes mistakes, like all of us ordinary humans, but he is a target of disproportionately negative, unrelentingly vicious, biased media attacks, more so than any other elected leader in media history.

Trump’s social media counterattacks hurt some journalistic egos, intensifying their shrill bias, which thereby more starkly exposes a fellowship of perverted minds, as I see in once-credible publications like the UK’s Guardian. Hiding the positives and giving a negative slant to anything an elected leader does or says is killing free and fair journalism.

Crucially, people forget that any elected leader with an anti-corruption agenda will be attacked from the forces of the status quo – for instance, multinational corporations losing billions of dollars of profit from being forced to employ their own citizens instead of exploiting far cheaper foreign labor. A corrupt media becomes their tool.

A media mafia does not help, like the Boston Globe-led collusion of 300 editors this August (The Los Angeles Times wisely kept away) protesting against dishonest sections of the media being called the “enemy of the people.”

Never forget how the media helped spreads falsehoods, such as non-existent weapons of mass destruction used as a pretext for the Iraq War, with hundreds of thousands of lives being lost as a result. A dishonest media is the “enemy of the people” and the enemy of the world.

Good news is also news

Not all is gloom and doom. I often tell journalism students that good news is also news; write to also shine a light on the many people quietly doing good work.

For over two decades, I am have been fortunate enough to work with honest media colleagues in India and worldwide, some wonderful people like the late Asia Times editor-in-chief  Tony Allison (1953-2012) . If you wish well of others, you get connected to good people and benevolent forces protecting all there is in this universe.

If I were to start another human lifetime, I would again be a journalist – until becoming an ascetic in the upper Himalayas, beyond mountain hamlets where little children greet with a respectful welcome, like smiling angels from another plane of existence.

In the mundane world, I cannot think of any other profession that offers adventures of the world and insights into fellow beings – like interviewing street children one day in Mumbai (circa 1993) and the next morning experiencing life inside an Indian navy’s German submarine. Journalism involves reporting realities and experiences and sharing a personal yet limited understanding of life.

More often, journalism becomes the accursed job of pointing critical fingers at others. Like sewage workers and patriotic spies, someone has to do the dirty work. But before trying to clean up the world, we media professionals first need to clean ourselves – in order to more accurately see things as they really are.

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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