Thursday, April 21, 2016

Are the media doing their job?

Author Harry M. Zubkoff
As readers of this blog know by now, writing was a huge part of Harry’s life, and he saved a lot – letters, emails, articles, poems, stories, novels and more. Much of what I’ve posted in the past year, I found in his paper files, organized neatly in about a dozen boxes and in folders on his shelves. Starting in the 1990s, he also saved writings in computer files. Those documents, too, wow me with more about my dad – his interests, knowledge, experiences, and feelings from both professional and personal aspects of his life. I hope you continue to enjoy these discoveries, too.

Harry wrote this piece on Dec. 6, 1996, likely for a publication. I was especially struck with his comments on our environment, Vietnam, and gun control. See what you think.

The American Constitution begins with this statement: We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.    

These purposes are listed not in descending order of importance, but rather as matters of equal importance. This paper will concentrate on the fourth listed goal – to provide for the common defense. (The American spelling of “defense” has superseded the British spelling.) Surely this is among the most important purposes of the Union, and the “common defense” in modern parlance has come to be known as the national security.

Most Americans have only a vague idea of what is meant by “national security”. They know that we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps, but informal surveys disclose that fewer than one in a million knows what the roles and missions of these armed forces are. Which of them, for example, is responsible for defending the nation against a surprise attack by submarine launched ballistic missiles? Or by land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles? Or which of them, if any, is responsible for the research and development of nuclear weapons, or of laser weapons?

And how many would recognize the different uniforms the military services wear or the various insignia they display? According to random questions asked on college campuses just after the Gulf War, I would guess that fewer than one in ten million Americans – that’s one in ten million – would know the difference between an Army officer and a Marine Corps officer, or between an Air Force officer and a Naval officer, if he saw them all walking down the street in their respective uniforms. And that, I submit, is a sad state of affairs.    

This level of ignorance extends to some of the most important public policy questions confronting our nation today. What size military forces should we build and what should the proper numbers of men and women allocated to each of the services be? What kinds of weapons systems should we develop and procure? What is the nature of the threat confronting us over the next ten years, and how should we prepare to meet it? How much of our national budget should we spend on military preparedness? Of course, these are complicated questions, and even the experts can disagree on the answers, but if there is one thing we all agree about in this country, it is that the people must be participants in the policy-making process. The problem is that they cannot participate if they have no foundation of knowledge on which to base their decisions.    

And there’s the rub. Who’s at fault here? Is it the government for failing to disseminate the necessary information on which informed decisions can be taken? Partly, although the government is constrained in many ways from providing more than the most basic information to the people. The main source of information for the public at large is the giant industry collectively known as the media. And the media, or the one small piece of the media that any individual looks to for information about public policies, is inadequate for the task.   

I don’t know how to solve this problem, though I have some suggestions. To begin with, the public policy quandaries and dilemmas confronting the country are extremely complex, and no single element of the media has the resources to cover them all and to explain them all to the public – not the wealthiest of the newspaper conglomerates, not the weekly news magazines, or even the broadcast networks with all the facilities at their disposal. I have stated many times and still believe that the major responsibility for keeping informed about public affairs lies with each individual; that only by reading widely in the various elements of the media – newspapers, magazines and broadcasts – could you be well enough informed to make decisions on public policies. But study after study has shown that the great majority of individuals in this huge, diverse society of ours spends less than 30 minutes a day on the news, and most of that time is spent on television news, which may be entertaining but is only marginally informative.   

What to do about it? I believe public policy studies should be incorporated in the teaching curricula of all public schools, elementary through secondary through college levels, so that all Americans will have a solid grounding in the public policy questions that the various levels of our government must deal with. And foremost among those questions is the provision of national security.    

So, what is national security? 
In my view, the national security embraces three major aspects of national activity: first, the nation’s military and defense policies; second, the nation’s foreign policies; and third, the nation’s economic policies. These three components are inextricably intertwined; you can’t have one without the other.                

The military and defense policy component of national security is covered only superficially by the media. The recruiting of men and women for military service, for example, once a subject of national concern and debate because of the draft, has subsided in the national consciousness since the draft ended in the mid-1970s. To this day, however, the implications of the all-volunteer service are not well understood in all their ramifications, and their devastating effect in terms of isolating our “mercenary” forces from the mainstream of our society is never discussed in the media. If the public truly understood what is happening, how a wholly new and culturally different element of our society is taking root in our midst, I suspect there might be a renewed effort to reinstitute conscription in order to maintain a genuine citizen’s army that would more nearly reflect our societal values.

Yet, the only media discussions about manpower and personnel problems take place when a cheating scandal emerges at a military school or a sex scandal at a military base, which places a skewed picture of military life before the public and further distances the military from the general public. News coverage of foreign policy matters is scanty, at best, unless an international crisis occurs. Unfortunately, international crises emerge quite often, but for a citizenry that needs to stay informed, the only time international affairs receive intense coverage is when a crisis develops and surprises the public. But crises do not develop and explode overnight. Every international event that assumed the proportions of a crisis since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War was foreseeable.

What’s worse, not only were they foreseeable, they were actually foreseen and predicted. And, more to the point, they could very possibly have been averted or blunted had the media been more aggressive in informing the public, and had the government been more willing to act before public opinion could be mobilized instead of waiting for the full-fledged crisis to emerge.

The economic component of national security is even less well-covered than is defense or foreign policy. It is generally recognized that international trade agreements are important elements of our economy, but how many are aware of the impact of such agreements on the security of our country? For example, for decades the Defense Department tried to control the export of sensitive technologies, but only after Iraq invaded Kuwait did the public suddenly become aware of the need to prevent some countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Even today, with the world’s expanded awareness of the danger involved in allowing Saddam Hussein, or any of the other rogue states such as Libya and Iran, to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there seems little doubt that he and they continue to pursue them clandestinely. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait exposed still another aspect of our economic national security – our increasing dependence on the Middle East sources of energy. In fact, a great many other countries around the world are even more dependent on Middle East oil supplies, which make the integrity of the entire region a matter of international security. 

A huge and complex problem
There are other elements of national security seldom mentioned in the media, but which will surely affect us all in the coming years. There is a problem confronting us so huge and so complex that its dimensions are almost impossible to describe – the management of our planetary environment.  We are, without a doubt, poisoning the planet, and the consequences will ultimately be disastrous, but the media are doing very little to keep the public apprised of the steady erosion of the environment. The destruction of our tropical rain forests is taking place at an ever increasing pace with a foreseeable impact on the ozone layer. The explosion of the world population is a phenomenon to which no attention is paid. 

From the beginning of history to 1830, we reached the one-billion mark. The second billion took 100 years, from 1830 to 1930. We added 3 billion more in the next 60 years, from 1930 to 1990.  The next billion will be complete only 11 years after that, in 2001. The pressures generated by an expanding world population can be predicted, with the developing countries competing with the developed countries for a larger share of the increasingly scarce natural resources. And, not the least of the international environmental problems facing humanity, the widespread distribution of toxic and nuclear waste materials is slowly rendering substantial areas of the planet uninhabitable.
If you don’t think that’s a national security problem, you’re living in another world with the media, which seem completely oblivious to this growing catastrophe.

More media failures
Let’s just mention a few other areas of enormous importance in which the media are failing to keep the public informed. Take the question of arms control and disarmament; the public generally believes that, since the Cold War has ended, arms control is no longer a priority consideration and may even be a moot question. The fact is, however, that missiles with nuclear warheads are still aimed at targets in the United States and the process of dismantling them is on hold. Moreover, the nuclear materials and other essential components of warheads are disappearing from Russian storage, with their ultimate destinations the subject of considerable speculation. Surely there is a threat to our national security involved.    

Take the question of our national defense industries: With the end of the Cold War, the need for new weapons systems has understandably declined, and as procurement contracts shrink, the industrial arsenal of democracy also shrinks. In order to stay afloat, defense industries are realigning themselves, and mergers are the order of the day. Where once we had dozens of large corporations and hundreds of smaller concerns in the defense business, today there are only a half dozen major corporations and a few dozen smaller ones left.

Hundreds of thousands of skilled workers have lost their jobs in this industry in the last five years. That’s the bad news. The good news is that many of these industries and skills are becoming engaged in other enterprises that are changing America’s lifestyles even as we speak. But how much of the media and of the public are truly aware of the tremendous technological revolution taking place right now? And how many are aware that the explosion of electronic wizardry, from computers to the Internet, is the direct result of the military research and development process?     

Look at just one weapon – the B-2 Bomber: Study after study has confirmed the fact that the public derives most of its news from television, so how have the networks covered the B-2 Stealth bomber? This case provides an illustration of how the networks distort the news and paint a curious picture of events. The public roll-out took place in November 1988, on the 25th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. All three major networks focused on the cost of this airplane, varyingly described as ranging from 250 million dollars to 500 million dollars. Not a word was mentioned about the capabilities of the plane or the purpose it was meant to serve. When the plane carried out its initial taxiing tests in July 1989, the networks again fixated on the cost and spoke derisively about its ability to travel six miles on the ground at a cost of a half billion dollars. They were all uninterested in discussing any substantive issues involving the advanced technology represented. 

Indeed, television will not or cannot talk about complicated events or problems unless it can present pictures to accompany the discussion. This means that no intelligent discussion reaches the great mass of the public on one of the most potent weapons systems ever developed. The fact is, this bomber, and the F-117 Stealth fighter, are together rewriting the rules of air warfare with technological advances that are fully as impressive in the field of aeronautics as the nuclear warhead is in the field of physics. But the media, and consequently the public, are completely unaware of the developmental marvels involved.                 

Do the media influence public policy?
There is more than one answer to that question. The first answer is one that the media do not like but that I believe to be mostly true. I believe the media has little or no impact on the formulation of public policies. Let’s look at a little history to document my view. The military and a substantial segment of the public believe that the media was responsible for losing the Vietnam War. They look at the news reports and they truly believe that the media was against the war from the start and in the end persuaded the public to turn against the war which, in turn, forced the government to settle for a phony peace and get out.    

Every objective study of the media’s performance during those years, however, proves differently. Actually, the media supported the war, from the time President Eisenhower first sent Americans to Vietnam in the mid-1950s, after the French were defeated and left. It was not until the American public turned against the war and began mass demonstrations on campuses all over the country and in Washington in the late 1960s that the media began opposing the continuing war effort. Helping to turn the public and the media against the war was the opposition of a number of congressmen and other prominent public figures. And while it is true that the government bowed to the pressure of public opinion in getting out of the war, it is not true that the media played a significant role in shaping that public opinion. Indeed, it was public opinion that shaped the media’s performance. 

Of course, other factors were at play, as well. One was the fact that President Johnson’s role in escalating the war was based on a lie – the incident in the Tonkin Gulf never happened and the lie was subsequently exposed. Another was the increasing number of casualties we were suffering. Still another was the failure to enunciate a clear declaration of policy by the President, and the seemingly incomprehensible conduct of the war itself under the leadership of Secretary McNamara.

Only in the last two or three years, two decades after the war ended, has McNamara finally confessed to the fact that the war was unwinnable under the rules he himself laid down. But it was widely known from the early days of the war that it could not be won under the conditions imposed by him and the President. The lessons drawn from that sad experience were directly reflected in the successful conduct of the Persian Gulf War five years ago, when victory was the goal, clearly stated, and the forces assigned to the task were adequate to carry out the strategic and tactical actions involved.    

There is plenty of other evidence to support my contention that the media has little effect on the formulation of public policies. To put it another way, the policy makers at the top levels of our government make their decisions based on other considerations, not on media support or opposition. The media, for example, was generally opposed to sending ground troops into Bosnia. The President did it, anyway. The media, too, was generally opposed to the NAFTA agreement; the government entered into that agreement, anyway. The Democratic President acted despite strong opposition from his own party and succeeded only with the support of the Republicans in the Congress. And take the elections of 1992 and 1996; despite a drumbeat of media comment about the President’s character, and poll after poll showing that the public did not fully trust him, he was still elected. I can only conclude that the media has little effect on the public itself, as well as on the policies that the government adopts.   

Measuring media performance
But let’s go on to another way of looking at the media’s impact. This involves looking at how the government’s policy makers view the media and measure the media’s performance. While it is true, as I noted earlier, that the public gets most of its news and opinions from television, this is not true for the decision makers. Most high-level officials cite CNN reports, which has emerged since the Persian Gulf War as a major source of news on breaking stories, but they rely on the print media for in-depth coverage. Now this is an interesting twist on the impact of the media on public policies. The CNN and television news reports often break a story, which is to say that they report on a news event with whatever pictures are available, thus providing a sort of headline service. Then the print media go after the story in a sort of feeding frenzy to obtain every possible scrap of information and conjecture they can get. Thus, TV has a multiplier effect by provoking the print media to pursue stories in ways that TV cannot. And it is the print media that the decision makers read and reread as they examine all the ramifications of the policy options open to them before they come to a final decision.

To be sure, they take public opinion into account in the decision-making process, and it is true that they would like to have public support for their decisions, but it is not the major consideration in the momentous decisions of our times. Sometimes, Presidents or Administrations or even the Congress will do what they think is “right” for the country, despite contrary public opinion.

Gun control is a case in point. Both the electronic and the print media have strongly supported gun control for the last 30 years, ever since President Kennedy’s assassination. What’s more, every poll taken since 1968, when both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed, has indicated that as much as 70 percent of the public favored gun control. Yet, every Administration and every Congress voted against gun control, despite public opinion and media pressure, until President Clinton and the 1992 Congress enacted the crime bill and the Brady bill. In fact, the 1994 Congress started agitating against gun control and wanted to repeal the Brady bill and the part of the crime bill prohibiting the sale of certain weapons, despite growing public and media support for those measures. And the 1996 Congress is again threatening to take these actions, despite public opinion and the certainty of a Presidential veto. So, I repeat, where’s the impact?                            

Power of the media
The real impact, I submit, lies in the power of the media to spark a national debate and to stimulate a national discussion about the problems confronting our country and our policy makers. This, actually, is what the media is supposed to do – to report on governmental activities and other current events and thus to keep the people informed. The real debate and discussion takes place in the Congress, which, through its system of conducting hearings in order to obtain information leading to legislation, keeps the media occupied in conveying that information to the public.

So, information takes a circular path; the media breaks a story usually with a minimum of information to start, followed by other media pursuing the story and obtaining additional information, followed by governmental pursuit of the story in its deliberations, followed by media elaboration of the story based on information disclosed by the government, and so forth and so on ad infinitum – or until the media in its wisdom decides that the story has been milked dry and goes on to repeat the cycle with another story. The life-cycle of a “big front page story” varies from a few days to a few weeks at most for 99 percent of them; only once in a great while will a story last longer.

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman

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