Media, country and negative reportage: Another perspective

11 May 2013

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Diaspora By Ekerete Udoh

Let me start by apologizing for the unavoidable absence of this column last week.  The change of season in the United States from winter to spring got me real hard. Thank God I am feeling better now.

Penultimate week, I asked the question whether it was fair to tar all elected leaders with mud and bad strokes simply because the Nigerian political space of which they are prominent members is corrupt and debased, thus lacking the capacity to produce leaders who are imbued with the ideals of the common good. My main point was to challenge us to begin to separate within our political space the chronically corrupt and performance- inept from the loadstars whose sole motivation for seeking power is to provide democratic dividends and buck conventional wisdom and to encourage them to do more while holding those who have betrayed the collective hopes of the people on fire.
It was a straight forward piece. As expected, I got tons of commentaries-some well-informed and logically sound while others were totally obtuse and analytically if not intellectually decrepit with heavy doses of personal attacks.  But that will not stop me from shining the light on this issue. Today, I am addressing the issue again, relying on my understanding of the American media approach to reporting events and situations that are deeply nationalistic and the protection of American national interest and its ideals of freedom, liberty and opportunity.
As the Nigeria state is evolving and its democratic culture deepening, we, in the media and the punditry class must begin to adopt certain forms and approaches to reporting events about our country: what we stand for, what defines us and to robustly defend our national interests and ethos, while also exposing the rot and corruption in our system. We cannot continuously project the worst in us, and expect the best from the rest of the world. It’s as simple as that.

American journalists came to this realization in the second decade of the 20th Century and ever since, they have drawn a line between reporting things that have the capacity to damage the American brand and those that will challenge their elected leaders to do more and encourage transparency.  Ethics have not been compromised but the American brand as the beacon of hope for the weary and the harried, for those seeking freedom from oppression, the projection of liberty and opportunity and the promotion of American interests and power remains sacrosanct and inviolable. The media has internalized this value and would fight to defend those ideals even if under certain conditions some ethical components may be sacrificed in the process.

As the late Judith Serrin- a former journalism professor at the Columbia Journalism School who also taught me journalism at Queens College of the City University of New York stated in  her seminal book “Muckraking: The journalism that changed America” (2002) “Journalists wear disguises, and one of them is the disguise of objectivity. No reporter goes into journalism saying he or she wants to be objective, yet journalists continue to say they write only what people say and do, that they, professional journalists have no agenda. This is FICTION. All good journalists have agendas”. Professor Serrin went on to state that “the journalists whose works are featured in this book were unobjective and had an agenda. That is why they did such fine works.”  Do I have an agenda? Hell yes!

Towards the dying decades of the 19th Century, the era called  “The Gilded Age”, capitalism had run amok,  and its untrammeled forces were unfurled- with its fangs wide open, and the little man had no place to run and find succor.  He needed help but help could not come his way. He was used and dumped and his welfare mattered little to those who controlled the instrument of wealth. Their living conditions mostly in the tenement cried for help and upgrade, but the fabulously wealthy barons of the era- the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, etc, had scant regards for those little pawns in the capitalist cheeseboards. They were totally expendable commodities in the considered  opinion of the mercantilists and capitalist class .

At the turn of the 20th Century and with the rise of Progressive Era in American politics, the galvanizing impulse on the part of the American media, especially those who had employed the instrument of muckraking was to quote the immutable phrase of Peter Finley who wrote under the moniker “Mr. Dooley” to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”  Famous turn of the Twentieth Century publisher-E. W. Scripps also stated his raison d’être for being in journalism which according to him was that “I have one principle and that is represented by an effort to make it harder for the rich to grow richer and easier for the poor to keep from growing poorer”. The motivation of the Twentieth Century journalists was to make America a more equitable and fairer society for everyone and given the inequality and the wide gulf that existed between the wealthy and the abjectly poor, the period demanded such an approach to reportage.
The Progressive Era muckraking which affected even the mainstream media, in its efforts to sanitize the society and expose the brazen inequality in the system had exposed several morally revolting ways the wealthy and the well-heeled had employed in creating their fabulous wealth. No segment of the society was untouched. Popular writers like Uptown Sinclair, Jacob Riis and others brought some of the plights of the poor to the fore and forced changes that helped make America a more tolerant if not equitable society it has become today.
As inequality and other serious issues were brought to the court of public opinion and the attendant reforms, American journalists began to change the tone and tenor of their reportage when the world was plunged into a senseless war from 1914-1918. Nationalistic fervor was the prevailing mood in most newsrooms. Government’s talking points became headline news during this period and America media wore the garb of patriotism. Germans- the aggressors became Americans enemy number one and they were derisively called the “Huns’. The media led in this march of mischaracterization and campaign of hatred. Was it a good approach? That’s an issue for another discussion.
The era of muckraking was now over and  American journalists began to celebrate the best of the American creed of freedom, capitalist approach and democracy. Wealth was no longer frowned upon as destructive instinct and the wealthy were no longer to be afflicted but to be celebrated. The poor were being told to roll up their sleeves and strive to achieve the American dream. The use of power was no longer seen as being unnecessary provocation but a source of national pride. The media promoted America’s emerging power and those who championed isolationist approach had their voices drummed out. America was an emerging power and the media was there to help pad the path with soothing editorials and patronizing features. Pax Americana was now a project that all must be invested in, and since the desired Pax Americana was achieved shortly after 1945 end of the 2nd World War and America’s ordained Marshall Plan, the media has been in the vanguard of the projection of America’s hegemonic power- its hard power, is talked about with pride and its soft power-wining the heart and minds of the freedom loving people celebrated as a unique American ideal. Such has been the American media’s view of their country and what it stands for.
During the unfortunate attacks of September 11, 2001, I remember asking my professor (a former Harvard professor of Political science and the Director General of  President Calvin Coolidge’s Presidential Library who, was now a professor of political science at Queens College and was teaching a course “ “American Politics and the Media”) why American journalists were all operating in a somewhat groupthink when it came to their post-September 11, reportage.

The senseless attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon had numbed everyone in America and around the world and everyone began to wear a nationalistic garb. The entire American media and its reportage were subsumed by patriotic feelings. No editor dared write opinion articles that may be considered as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. News reports relied mostly from sanitized versions from the White House and op-ed articles were draped in nationalistic colors. It wasn’t that the American journalists could not have protested or recoiled in shock at such a controlled approach to the dissemination of news, which traditionally runs counter to the First Amendment’s right to free speech. They were being guided by the prevailing opinion and the mood of the public. The professor had answered my question by telling stating that American journalists are first and foremost Americans and the preservation of the union comes first, because if there is no union, there would be no hard or disparate opinion to be expressed, since the union would have been destroyed. It was that simple.
A few journalists who dared to buck this emerging nationalist fervor were taken off air or had their columns cancelled. Geraldo Rivera- a popular Fox News War Correspondent was yanked off air by Fox News when he inadvertently drew a military coordinates on the sands of Afghanistan while making a live report. In the considered opinion of Fox News honchos, he had put the troop’s safety in jeopardy by revealing certain strategic information to the enemies. He was kept off air for months. Bill Maher’s program on ABC was canceled when he questioned the masculinity of American troops. All through the lead- up to the war with Iraq, the subterfuge that was employed, the lies and brazenly deception that Bush White House had used to rally the American people to support the war, American media played along, and refused to ask hard questions even when they knew they were being lied to, and brazenly manipulated.  The media was neutered because the country was a war and ‘objectivity’ was sacrificed. In the media’s considered opinion, the country comes first.

Why are we employing different standards in Nigeria?  Or put differently: why are we so quick to launder our dirty linens and delight defining our country along the most negative and unsantized lines? My point is simple: that as much as we want to expose the rot in our system, we should not destroy the nation in the process. There is no denying the fact that we have problems- loads of them and they all cry out for our attention, and we must shine the light on those problems and bring those who magnify them into the court of public opinion and shame them. But we should also begin to celebrate the little baby steps that are being made towards greater national development and renewal. It is not all doom and gloom, which is what a lot of readers want some us to constantly write about.

There are certain areas- certain phrases that American journalists would never use, because using such, would deface the American brand. During the tense period that the Al-Gore and George W. Bush election issues lasted in 2000, American journalists never used the phrase ’rigging” to describe what the Republicans had done in Florida, which in simple term was nothing but pure rigging. Benign phrases such as ‘electoral malpractice or votes padding’ were freely used. Rigging, carries with it negative connotations and American journalists won’t use such to describe its glorious electoral process. Why can’t we begin to promote our brand while also exposing the rot in the system? Does touting the good things about our country a function of a compromised pen or an exercise motivated by pecuniary exchange? No, I don’t think so!

Touting some of the good things I have seen within our democratic space while also calling to carpet those who have betrayed the collective hopes and aspirations of the people has been my agenda on this page and those readers who want me to spit fire of incivility and calling people names and maligning them, and who have been eviscerating me for not doing so, are barking a wrong tree. Let me disappoint those readers here by stating that I will continue to point out the good things however insignificant within our socio-political space while also exposing the malfeasance within the system. This approach is not new, it is an American approach and I owe it to myself to engender a new thinking in the way we look and view our country. Does that make me a cheer leader or one whose ethics has been compromised? Absolutely not! Is the American mainstream media whose manner of reporting the American state mirrors what I have described here cheers leaders? If they are, then I am happy to be counted as one.  What a good company to be in! Now you know my agenda!

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