A couple of times a day, I spend a few minutes catching up on the news. Today, two articles appeared that may seem totally unrelated, but bring up larger questions. The first is one from Salon.Com, discussing Journalistic Irony– In a nutshell, it discusses how the “cozy” relationship between Japanese media and the Government may be impeding the flow of information to the public, where a reporter whose article ended up getting General McCrystal fired was criticized by colleagues for being “rogue” and did not have a sense of “responsibility” to his sources. The second is about a professor getting fired for their evening gig at a burlesque club.
These may seem like two things you might never hook together, but it got me thinking about what do we need to know, what do we have a right to know, and who decides what falls into each category?
I think we can generally agree that a journalist has a lot of responsibility in their hands. They may get an inside look, under the hood of government or of people with high profiles, who have a lot to lose. They may catch these people in unguarded moments, where they speak their mind and are candid, but it’s not something we would generally broadcast to the rest of the world. If a journalist lets the cat out of the bag, there can be serious consequences. If the journalist decides to keep the information to themselves, are they telling us the whole truth? Are they making a unilateral decision about what’s relevant and what’s not? What if their editor is the one that decides what gets included and what doesn’t? If editors of the local paper are no longer trusted or seen as one of the important filter points and information aggregators in a community, what controls what’s news and what’s not, other than a free for all popularity contest?
You can argue whether or not people in power should “know” that the mic is always on and we’re always on stage- but who can really live up to that every moment of their lives? We all need places where we can let our hair down, so to speak, speak our inner most thoughts, and trust that they won’t appear online or in other public forums. We need places where we can test our ideas before they are ready for prime time. We need places where we can express our frustration and begin to work out our opinions and plans without needing it to all come out into the sunshine before it’s ready. But it seems as if those places where we can unleash our id or ego in relative safety are becoming rarer than ever before.
I know I warn clients and audiences that anything put online should be considered public domain. In an age where any past opinion can be used to pummel you to death, long after you’ve reconsidered your opinion or changed your mind based on new information; where indiscretions may haunt you forever; where mistakes seem to be impossible to truly forgive; where there is very little that remains off the record- we’re going to have to come to some decisions about when we let folks just be human. Sure, I make off hand comments when I’m frustrated. I have on at least one occasion, offered to sell my kid on ebay (jokingly) when he was causing me all sorts of frustration and stress- and I know some of his teachers and my friends saw that comment. Does this mean child protective services should crash into my house and check my computers to see if I really offerred to sell him on ebay? They are welcome to- the answer is of course, no- but this is now out there in the public. Are we going to have to make sarcasm and a sense of humor illegal? Are we all going to be subject to infinite remix for people trying to hammer us and put things in their own “version” of the truth, like the remix O’Keefe did to try to hammer NPR executives? I think this quote from the Washington Post Article sums it up nicely:
“I tell my children there are two ways to lie,” said Al Tompkins, a broadcast journalist who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida. “One is to tell me something that didn’t happen, and the other is not to tell me something that did happen. I think they employed both techniques in this.”
We’re going to have to be careful these days in figuring out where we get to be just human. I think the Japanese reporters have a tough balancing act- trying to make sure they give the public information without causing a widespread panic; letting the government figure out answers and possible solutions which are not instant in an constantly evolving crisis, while not withholding key information people want to know to gauge how to keep themselves and their families safe – especially when the honest answer to this question is really not definitive, but “I Don’t Know.” Likewise, I am not sure why the psychology professor’s night time gig is really a disgrace to the University- especially since having been a student, what goes on in most dorm rooms and Greek houses is far more risque and probably disturbing than a burlesque show. What I do know is we’re in a period of great upheaval, where I hope the end point becomes one of more human kindness and tolerance and less pious paragon of victorian virtues on the outside and hotbed of hypocrisy on the inside.
I don;t know- this is clearly a post where I’m trying to work these issues out- what do you think?