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Journalists have certain responsibilities

Published: March 9, 2007
Section: Opinions


Journalists have long been the champions of the First Amendment and all that it has to offer. This is to be expected, because freedom of speech is in place to protect those whose opinions are strange and deviant from the norm. In fact, the right for people to say things in public (and in print) that respond to the problems that they see in the world is what has allowed the US to last longer then many of restrictive and destructive regimes of recent history.

Journalists, however, have a certain responsibility, not to the US Constitution necessarily, but to the public and the profession at large to ensure that this sacred institution is always protected and always supported (at least tacitly) by the public, in order to prevent those in power from using the unpopularity and mistrust of the press to erode the First Amendment's effectiveness and existence in general. This is why Glenn Beck, Nancy Grace, and Lou Dobbs (among many others), must be subject to a popular effort to be removed from prime time television. This should come only as a result of public pressure for their termination due to their lack of integrity and overall deficiencies in providing the public with substance in their news.

Why these three people out of a profession of literally thousands of people, and why three pundits? Simply put, there is nothing wrong with the fact that they hold strong opinions, rather their faults arise from consistent violations of their responsibility to the public to provide factual and learned information to their viewers. Instead have relied on bullying, fear-mongering, and (in the case of Glenn Beck) outright racism in order to not only convert their viewers into their form of extremism, but to boost their own ratings as well. Those who report the news and provide editorial opinions should be free to provide this service to the public no matter what, but idiotic and simplistic demagoguery should be left for the amateurs on the internet and shortwave radio, not be paid millions of dollars and put on TV as a way of validating their own sense of self worth.

Glenn Beck is probably the most incendiary and idiotic voice to be broadcast on a national level since Father Coughlin in the 1930s. His rants against liberals and Muslims frequently cross the line into full-fledged hate speech, and he has proved to be less a journalist than a paranoid chicken hawk more suited to preaching in a bomb shelter then on CNNs Headline News. According to Media Matters, he has accused Happy Feet of being liberal propaganda, compared Howard Dean to Iranian President Ahmadinejad, and has also suggested that Muslims who do not aid the United States in the War on Terror to his standards should be sent to concentration camps. His most notable moment of incredible ignorance came when he asked Congressman (and practicing Muslim) Keith Ellison if he was a terrorist saying: Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.” This is not the work of a serious journalist, but rather a racist idiot to whom no major corporation (much less CNN and now ABC) should ever have given a microphone and camera.

Nancy Grace is a former prosecutor and currently has her talk show on CNN Headline News.

She has perfected an antagonistic style of court-room journalism where she takes unabashed views on the guilt of the accused before evidence is provided in a trial setting. She has been criticized for driving Melinda Duckett, a young mother whose son was kidnapped, to her suicide after a particularly harsh interview. Grace has made it a habit to interject her opinions into high-profile cases with limited evidence, including the Scott Peterson and Elizabeth Smart cases. This poor behavior is to be expected, however, as she was reprimanded twice (once by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals) as a prosecutor and was exposed by Rebecca Dana of the New York Observer as stretching the facts in her account of the murder of her fianc.

Lou Dobbs presents another example of the poor quality and direction of the news today, not because he lacks intelligence and sophistication (like the aforementioned Beck and Grace), but because his work is equally misleading but is presented in an intelligent and almost attractive manner. This is a man who has reinvented his message and career to suit a more working-class audience in recent years by using xenophobia and ultra-nationalism alongside calls for internal social and economic improvements to benefit the working man. This is of course done while Dobbs procures millions from his television appearances, speaking tours, and books. A recent interview from the New Yorker spoke of his usual support for the working-class while eating a $50 entre for lunch. He revamped his primetime show, Moneyline, from an in depth (if not incredibly boring) financial show, into Lou Dobbs Tonight, where Dobbs follows the nightly ritual of condemning corporate America, uncaring politicians, the protectionist upper class, and Mexicans. It is this formula of aligning declining wages and a loss of the middle class jobs and opportunities of the past with immigration that is particularly dangerous, not in its novelty (this same message has been used since the birth of the country to scare WASPs about the impending hordes from Italy, Ireland, China, etc), but rather in its effectiveness. A person who loses his manufacturing job cannot easily blame a complex system benefiting the rich and powerful, but can easily revile Mexican immigrants. He virulently supports the Minuteman organization, even as they have been accused of having members with connections to the white power movement, and he also believes in the conspiratorial idea that Mexico is trying to retake the southwest in the name of the future state of Aztlan (which is propagated by the Conservative Citizens Council, the former White Citizen Council also known as the uptown Klan). It is this amalgamation of traditional populism with outright nativism that makes this Harvard educated economist so dangerous, and convincing, to a segment of the public that has suffered greatly from the Bush administration.

The danger of demagogues like Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace, and charlatans like Lou Dobbs, comes from the fact that they are simply abusing their positions as journalists. Viewers are not stupid, and they can see when someone is using their power and opinions to do nothing more than destroy elements of their community, rather than pacify or change things that they as members of the press disagree with. Whether it is on the national stage or here at Brandeis, journalistic responsibility should be a priority of those involved in the institution, and we should be quick to denounce those who (for no reason other then self aggrandizement) take their personal anguish and torment out on an unsuspecting public. The public should also be wary of those who bring them the news, and understand that everyone has an agenda and opinion, and that while there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, there is a need for individuals to understand when someone is trying to court them into a group rather then enlighten them as individuals.