Friday, March 28, 2008

Rev. Wright to The NYT, and some thoughts on journalism (and truth?)

Daily Kos posts a copy of an unpublished letter from Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the NYT from about a year ago, with much accompanying commentary. It is worth a look.

There are aspects of Wright's letter that I find distinctly uncomfortable, and I fear these are reflective of some larger issues in his character and outlook. That does not necessarily distinguish him in kind from many other religious leaders who have had inordinate (and in my view deleterious) influence through the media and directly on public officials. American public opinion is considerably more tolerant of some of these figures than of others, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that race (along with the distinctive/minority position of certain faiths in the American context) has a not inconsiderable impact on how objectionable statements are received by the media and the public.

Wright's letter to The Times raises an additional issue worthy of discussion here. I have been a devout Times reader for more than 35 years, since my college days. It is, I think, the best we have in daily print journalism, although I have long tried to seek supplementation via numerous other sources of news--a task made much easier in this age of the "internets" (tubes, lots of tubes).

I often have occasion to reflect on the disparity in my trust in The Times (or any other news source, mainstream or otherwise--I'm picking on The Times here as exemplary of better news sources) in areas in which I am professionally or otherwise expert, and in areas I know less immediately or in depth.

Today is the 29th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Digging into my deeply repressed past, I then worked for a law firm representing the owner of TMI, and had been involved in some relatively minor regulatory matters regarding the facility. On the morning of the accident, we were packing up for a trip to the facility, for a hearing on issues relating to--are you ready for this--the likelihood and potential consequences of a direct impact by a large airliner on a functioning nuclear facility.

I am mindful of the continuing obligations of confidentiality, but I think it is permissible to say that for the next year and a half, I attended and privately reported on virtually every Washington-based public meeting of regulatory agencies, Congressional committees, and the Presidential (Kemeny) Commission investigating the accident. I was a pretty highly informed listener, with a substantial sense of the overall context of the developing story. Needless to say to those who were alive then, the story got a lot of media attention (which I also followed closely). Suffice it to say, much of the media coverage got events, both large and small, badly wrong, and almost always in a sensationalistic context (even in the most "responsible" press and media). And I don't think this reflect any enormous skew or bias in my own perceptions--my job (and my personal temperament) was to get things right, in as unfiltered a fashion as possible. This included conveying bad news (of which there was a great deal) as accurately as I could, often directly to senior figures.

The experience had a lasting impact on my thinking, reinforcing perceptions dating to press coverage of student protests (including a building occupation) at Harvard in the late 1960s. I was less confident in my own perceptions as a college student, and recognized that I only had one view of the elephant on that occasion. By 1979, that had changed--I had as clear and complete a first-hand view as most anyone in one of the most covered events of its time.

The media got so much of it wrong, sometimes seriously so, with important public consequences.

This has also been an all-too-typical experience on issues in bioethics and law that I have followed closely over the past three decades. At various points, I have had significant interactions with the press, and often do not recognize myself in the published accounts of the conversations. In recent years, I have taken to imposing conditions on the circumstances in which I speak for publication--with the result that I am called for interviews considerably less frequently, which has been okay. My vanity is satisfied in other contexts, or I do without. (Or I blog.)

And here is the crucial piece. Knowing all this from personal experience, sometimes hard earned, when I read The Times (or other sources) on subjects I know less about, and from a less first-hand perspective, I still indulge a presumption that The Times gets it basically right. I do read things more critically than I once did, and am less inclined to take press accounts as any species of holy writ (a subject adverted to at the top of this posting). But there still is a degree of trust, indeed of credulousness, that I cannot fully bring myself to overcome. The problem, at least in part: what is the alternative?

I don't have any overarching theory of press bias. Over past decades, since my TMI experience, I have talked about this general phenomenon with many folks expert in a variety of fields, often with persons whose expertise is of interest to the media and results in many direct contacts. All report more or less the same story, with local variations. None of us fully trust media reporting in the areas of our own expertise. All of us let down our guard, to a greater or lesser degree, when reading the media on subjects we know less about. None of us have found a fully satisfactory alternative, and virtually all of us have other demands on our time, and cannot devote infinite hours to searching the web (or magazines, or other potential sources) on matters less central to our daily concerns.

If this is true of The Times, The Washington Post, The LA Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe--how much the more so for cable news outlets (see my recent postings on that subject).

Is there a reality out there? Can we know it? On what can we base consequential decisions on important public matters beyond our first hand experience? Is meaningful democracy possible in such a complex world?

I'd be interested in your experiences, and in your opinions.

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