How free is the fourth estate?

Present-day journalism is pretty much servile to instruments of state powerMehru Jaffer May 3 is World Freedom Day and an occasion to share a few thoughts on the pathetic state of the media in most parts of the world caught in conflict and drowned in poverty.But is the situation any better in the developed and supposedly free societies? According to Ted Turner, who regrets losing control of CNN founded by him in 1980, there is an awful lot of superfluous news revolving around sex and violence.“Who needs it all?” Turner wants to know and admits to having thought about running for president of the USA a lot, but at 70 years of age his opportunity may have passed.Turner feels that bombing people isn’t a way of changing people’s mind but education is.Bush lacks this understanding of the world. He travelled out of the country but once before he was elected and yet he is the guy with his finger on the nuclear trigger, regrets Turner.London-based Australian journalist John Pilger finds it difficult to come to terms with the servility of present-day journalism to state power. Noble words such as democracy, liberation, freedom and reform have been emptied of their true meaning and refilled by enemies of those concepts. The false dominates news, along with dishonest political labels such as “left of center”, a favourite, given to warlords such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. “In reclaiming the honour of our craft, not to mention the truth, we journalists at least need to understand the historic task to which we are assigned, that is to report the rest of humanity in terms of its usefulness or otherwise, to ‘us’, and to soften up the public for rapacious attacks on countries that are no threat to us.”Amy Mitchell, Associate Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism in discussion of the latest report released by her office recently agreed that things were better when most journalists wanted to be good reporters, rather than celebrities. She pointed out that today’s owners many times do not have a background in journalism either. This is especially true in the newest ventures such as Google and Yahoo that began as businesses rather than journalistic endeavours.Observers watch helplessly as journalists are marginalized after 9/11 and journalism is increasingly attacked by the faith-based ideology of neo-conservatives in America and in Europe. Robert Fisk, who is a class apart and best fits the role of a genuine interpreter and guide who sees democracy as inseparable from concepts of justice and equality continues to rebuke the USA for seeking to impose democracy on West Asia when what people want more than anything else is “freedom from us”.  Dan Rather signed off his last broadcast in March, 2005 at CBS with courage, something that he says he has little in himself. “In our comfort and complacency, in our cowardice, we, none of us, want to hear the battle cry…In the constant scratching and scrambling for ever-better ratings and money and praise from the boss  and better job, it is worth pausing to ask, how goes the really important battle of our professional lives? How goes the battle for equality, for truth and justice for programs worthy of the best within ourselves and the audience? How goes the battle against ignorance, intolerance and indifference? The battle to make television not just entertaining but also at least some little of the time, useful for higher, better things. How goes the battle? The answer, we know is, not very well.” Rather’s hero is Edward R Murrow, a man of courage and accomplishment who decried the hours of prime time as being full of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.Murrow hoped that the potential of television would be used and not abused. The news anchor worked for television amidst an “epidemic of fear” at CBS. Yet he challenged Joseph McCarthy, using the communist baiting Senator’s own words to expose his reckless abuse of power. He was eventually fired but his name continues to be whispered reverentially, inspiring George Clooney to direct Good Night, And Good Luck that was nominated for six Oscars but won not one.I adore the film and love to replay that bit from Murrow’s 1958 talk about the power of television to teach, illuminate and inspire. “But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”