FLORIDA, June 4, 2013 — Many people happily remember the days when alphabet networks and urban newspapers dominated our country’s media structure. In terms of accountability, was this really such an idyllic time?
Recently, the Justice Department has been subject to controversy as a result of its monitoring the Associated Press. Some claim that this was done in the name of national security, while others believe it to be a step toward government-sanctioned media. What about this?
Even more recently, it was revealed that the Justice Department obtained a warrant to spy on Fox News journalist James Rosen’s email account. The DoJ’s rationale was that he was possibly engaged in criminal activity by requesting classified information. What ramifications does this have for contemporary journalism?
Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press, which is perhaps our nation’s foremost organization devoted to media accountability and journalistic integrity. In this second part of our discussion, he answers the questions listed above.
He also tell us about what inspired him to become an advocate for media reform, as well as the most surprising thing that he has learned about the American media throughout his career.
Joseph F. Cotto: Many people happily remember the days when alphabet networks and urban newspapers dominated our country’s media structure. In terms of accountability, was this really such an idyllic time?
Craig Aaron: No, you’re right. We need to take off the rose-colored glasses. But there were things from that era that we do still need, like reporters and bureaus around the world. And we have the further problem — especially in local news — that the old media still dominates. The daily newspaper is the most visited news site for news in every market — even though it’s a shell of what it used to be. And in most places, there’s not a real competitor that gets any measurable traffic. I’m all for the greater accountability that the Internet offers.
I’m all for weakening the control of the traditional gatekeepers — though that really hasn’t happened yet. They are weaker but still in control. And if we gain a lot more channels and hours of programming but are doing less actual news gathering, then the public really isn’t being served.
Cotto: Recently, the Justice Department has been subject to controversy as a result of its monitoring the Associated Press. Some claim that this was done in the name of national security, while others believe it to be a step toward government-sanctioned media. What do you think about this?
Aaron: I think what the Justice Department has done is an outrage. There’s already a chilling effect — nobody is as willing to talk to investigative journalists anymore. I think this is the real scandal the Obama administration needs to answer for. And the answers so far — a loophole-ridden shield law and off-the-record meetings with news executives — aren’t enough. At Free Press, we joined more than 50 news organizations and 60 civil liberties and public interest groups on letters demanding that the Obama administration end the targeting and intimidation of journalists and whistleblowers.
As I’ve said before, this is not just a matter of concern for journalists or newsrooms; it’s an issue at the heart of our democracy. We can’t hold government and corporate leaders accountable or have an informed public unless we support truth-seeking journalism. President Obama says journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. But actions speak louder than words, and guidelines only work if they’re actually followed.
Cotto: Even more recently, it was revealed that the Justice Department obtained a warrant to spy on Fox News journalist James Rosen’s email account. The DoJ’s rationale was that he was possibly engaged in criminal activity by requesting classified information. What ramifications does this have for contemporary journalism?
Aaron: This is very, very dangerous — and needs to be loudly opposed not just by journalists but by every American. I don’t personally agree with Roger Ailes of Fox News very often, but I will proudly stand next to him in defending against efforts to criminalize investigative journalism. It shouldn’t matter if you lean left or right, we all need to speak out against government actions that infringe on the ability of the press to do its job. And that job is seeking out information that the government sometimes would prefer we wouldn’t see.
The unprecedented crackdown during this administration on leakers and whistelblowers must stop.
Cotto: What inspired you to become an advocate for media reform?
Aaron: Maybe I was born to do it. My father works in local television and my mother for a longtime was in the telecom industry. I went to journalism school and figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t want to just learn how to rewrite press releases. I was drawn to long-form and investigative journalism and especially to the alternative and independent outlets doing that kind of work. That opened my eyes to the structural obstacles that discouraged the kind of serious, I.F. Stone-style work from being done or getting a bigger audience.
Once I began to learn the history of our media system, I realized that the system we have isn’t magical or natural.
It is shaped by policy, political and business decisions. And I believe the public should have a voice in those decisions and a seat at the table. When Free Press was created to amplify that voice, I wanted to be a part of it. So I put down my reporters’ notebook and red editor’s pen and became an advocate. Free Press will celebrate its 10th anniversary later this year.
Cotto: Throughout your career, what is the most surprising thing that you have learned about the American media?
Aaron: On the positive side, I am constantly reminded and impressed by how many serious, hard-working, truth-seeking journalists you will find in almost any newsroom, even after all the challenges and cutbacks. On the negative side, I’ve been surprised at how reluctant most journalists remain in speaking out on the issues and decisions — whether mega-mergers, attacks on press freedom or the policies shaping the Internet — that will determine the future of their profession or whether there is one.
A journalist once told me, as her newspaper was being shuttered, something like “you can’t be objective about your own demise.” That’s right. But you can still do something about it.
Far-left? Far-right? Get real: Read more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto
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