Monday, June 30, 2008

PBS Frontline: "News War"

PBS Frontline now has a two DVD set “News War” from broadcasts in early 2007 (February). They cover several major topics of importance to journalists and especially bloggers and “citizen journalists.” The PBS link (including ability to purchase) is here. The total length is about 270 minutes.

Disc 1 is called “Secrets, Sources & Spin” and comprises two one-hour programs. The program covers two inter-related problems: whether journalists can keep their sources confidential when pursued by law enforcement, and whether journalists can be pursued or prosecuted for possessing and particularly disclosing classified information.

The early part of the report covers the Vietnam era protests and the legal issues and court cases surrounding the New York Times (and Washington Post) and the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 (text here: The case wound up before the Supreme Court as “New York Times Co. v. United States” and the Times and Post “won” 6-3. (The Cornell Law School indexed copy of the Opinion is here: In 1972, a major case “Branzburg v. Hayes” established that the First Amendment will not shield reporters summoned before a grand jury. A FindLaw copy of the Opinion is available here. During the Watergate era, Woodward and Bernstein had to rely on anonymous and protected sources to expose the scandal in the Nixon Administration (as in the movie “All the President’s Men”).

The issue of classified documents being released by the media would surface in the Ford Administration with a report about submarines by Seymour Hersh, and eventually no action would be taken.

In the Bush years, post 9/11, many of the same issues would return. Ashcroft would turn about face on previous administrations’ policies on “openness” to media, using any legal pretext to maintain mum. In 2005, the media would learn that law enforcement and intelligence agencies would wiretap on American communications without proper court supervision.

The issue of shields for journalists would come up with the jailing of Judith Miller for her refusing to testify regarding a leak naming Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. In the complicated maneuvers that follow (covered in the film), Scooter Libby would be tried for obstruction of justice and perjury.

There is no federal shield law for journalists in place, although there are many state laws. There are bills in Congress, such as Arlen Specter’s Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, discussed here.

There are philosophical debates about whether the Press is part of the “checks and balances” when it is not elected or appointed by a political process. There are questions as to whether the press could be viewed as an underground arm of law enforcement.

These questions have come up as to whether “amateur bloggers” would be treated the same was as “professional” reporters with respect to various problems that may come up. Josh Wolf was jailed (longer than any journalists) for refusing to turn over unpublished video clips of the burning of a police car in a demonstration to the FBI. (Go to the April 2007 archive in my movies blog (see Profile) and look for April 4 review of “All Empires Must Fall” and a group called “Anarchist Action”). Would an “amateur” (like myself) have a greater obligation than the “Press” to report a credible “tip” that he or she receives or witnesses? (I have turned over a few emails to the FBI myself since 2001, and they were interested in at least one of them.) Another question concerns “implicit content”: whether some kinds of material, when found by visitors (especially less mature visitors) will be viewed the same way as when it comes from “the establishment”, or whether in some cases amateur material could be considered “enticing.”

The film, as I recall, mentions the ethical dilemma that the Times and Post faced in 1995 when they published the "Manifesto" by Theodore John Kaczynski. But now the full text is widely available on the Internet, including Wikipedia.

The film also mentions the federal investigations of the Blank Panthers in the 60s and 70s, and this group was considered equivalent to the "terrorists" of today.

The second disk starts with the 90 minute “What’s Happening to the News?” The film examines how the various components of the news and journalism industry are reorganizing largely because of the Internet and the possibility of “free entry” by bloggers and citizen journalists. Internet companies, like Yahoo! and especially Google (CEO Dr. Eric Schmidt speaks often in the film) build a search and advertising infrastructure that pays for the rapid deployment of news, including citizen or user generated news. Younger people are tending to go to the Internet for news and advertising or product information. As a result, old fashioned print newspapers (and magazines) do relatively less well with classified ads and with selling hard-copies at newsstands or in subscriptions. Specialized classified advertising companies like Craigslist also compete with newspapers.

There is discussion of how bloggers work, and whether many of them actually get first-hand news the way professional journalists do. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they are invited to and paid for blogging on specific events, like trials (the Libby trial above) or political campaigns. The blogosphere, both from the liberal and conservative sides, tends to keep the established press honest and sometimes catches errors, such as the report about George W. Bush’s earlier military service and Dan Rather.

There is discussion of the corporate bean counters, and of the consolidations in the newspaper business. The Chicago Tribune bought the Los Angeles Times, and the Tribune is trying to get the Times to spend less on national and international reporting and focus more on local news. There is an ego issue with many reporters and their desire to write original stories about worldwide importance, such as why President Bush went to war in Iraq. There is another "ego" problem in that many journalists would like to migrate from factual (especially local) reporting to op-eds and commentary. But the money may be in “hyperlocalism” and in local news. For Los Angeles, ironically, that could mean more focus on stories about Hollwyood! (I recall a second local LGBT paper in Minneapolis, formed in 2002, that insisted that all freelance submissions be local!) There is also discussion as to whether it’s healthy that Wall Street’s “short term profits” values affects the news business, and some media companies do not expect the same return form their news divisions as from other entertainment divisions. But sometimes news, when done creatively, is very profitable, as with NBC Dateline and its famous series on Internet entrapment (some snippets from which are shown, as the scene where a cancer researcher, caught in pathetic circumstances with police, protests "I didn't do anything!" -- but he would have). The ethical problem in NBC’s paying a “vigilante” group to help is mentioned.

The last film (from "Frontline World") is called “Stories from a Small Planet” and itself is in two segments. One is called “War of Ideas” and talks about Al Jazeera and about western reporters in Beirut and Dubai. The film shows spectacular footage of both cities, especially Dubai. A state department employee fluent in Arabic reports on the US position on issues to UAE audiences – he is paid to present someone else’s point of view, notice. The last portion, "Requiem", is a short piece by Sheila Colonel, and describes the risks journalists take in places like the Philippines, Malaysia, Russia, China, and Iraq, where “objective” journalists have often been specifically targeted.

The whole set stresses the importance of journalism and of objectivity, apart from financial gain, political loyalty, or even as auxiliary senses for law enforcement.

I wonder if the Newseum (Washington DC) will show these Frontline films in its downstairs documentary film theater sometimes.

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