Published On: Thu, Nov 21st, 2019

Questions the media must answer

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THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu

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The media –whether mainstream or online- by what we choose to report or what we under report; by what we give prominence to or what we ignore; by what we sensationalize or what we play down, are the reason for the unending ethno-regional schisms that have continued to define the character especially of our political life. These days most of us, even when we appear to report facts often it is with a motive to stir up controversy. And in fact the Online, more than the Mainstream media is essentially the incorrigible outlaw that, by its nature, is neither exhortable to the rules and ethics of journalism nor properly positioned to be sanctioned for any breach. The Online media lives by a totally different kind of creed, and which is that its practitioners do not believe they have to be truthful to be virtuous. All that cometh to their net has to be ‘fish’. In fairness to the Online media though, it is still more forthrightly committed to its outlaw-credo than the Mainstream is to the time-honored ethics of the journalism profession. Whereas the Online media makes no pretence about its objective –which often is to stir up controversy- the Mainstream media it must be said, is in a state of flux. It is caught between the vagrant laissez fair style of the Online media and its traditionally ethics-governed duty to inform, educate and entertain. And you would think that it should be in the interest of the Mainstream Media that its nomadic Online counterpart is regulated and ranched to the sedentary principles that the traditional media has always been governed by. But no, even the Mainstream Media is gradually becoming trapped in the delirium of the unregulated field for which the Online media is both famed and despised. You would think that the Mainstream Media would capitalize on the frailties and foibles of its largely ill-trained Online counterpart to help both of them preserve the dignity and integrity of the Fourth Estate. But no, it appears to be adamantly interested in fighting to preserve the heretical lifestyle of the very Online Media that, if you ask me, is bent on sending it out of business.
Journalism, unlike, say the law profession, has always been doomed to its self-harming porous borders –admitting every Tom Dick and Harry as practitioners. Even before the advent of the Online Media, virtually every character who could put pen to paper, without pre-qualification, had always been employable as a purveyor of news and information. And now with the advent of the Online Media, virtually every phone user has become a self-licensed journalist, -so that even in the comfort of his bedroom he can fabricate news and information for the consumption of the unsuspecting public. In fact it is to the vagrant, irresponsible ways of the Online Media that ‘Fake News’, ‘Hate Speech’ and ‘Rumor Mongering’ now owe their elevation as critical issues in the Newsfeed both of print and electronic journalism. And there is no telling how soon the Online Media will be singing the Nunc Dimittis or the funeral dirge of its overindulgent Mainstream counterpart, because people appear to love froth (which the Online Media is famed for) more than they do substance. With the advent of Online Media all hope that someday, journalism may have its own weird Donald Trump to worry about how to wall-up its porous borders is virtually lost for good. Because now even the Mainstream media is beginning to take pride more in the business of stirring up controversy than in the traditional business of helping society to be informed, educated and entertained. We are gradually beginning to turn even ethical axioms on their heads, so that rather than ‘leaving out whenever we are in doubt’, we now delight in provocatively publishing to clear our doubt. And whereas we are quick to challenge the hapless victims of our fake or biased reporting to countercheck our excesses only by the due judicial process, yet when victims of fake news or biased reporting seek redress, we are equally as quick to alert that ‘press freedom’ is on trial. We cannot eat our cake and then have it!
The power of the media, as it is a source for good it is potentially also a force for evil. It is either deployed responsibly for everyone’s good or irresponsibly for the harm of all. And although it is joked that the duty of journalists is to ‘comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable’, what especially Online Media is bent on doing nowadays is to ‘afflict’ the comfortable and to afflict even the already afflicted’. And as Newton Minow, a onetime American Federal Communications Commission’s Chair warned: “just as history will decide whether the leaders of today’s world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind’s benefit, so will history decide whether (the media) employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or debase them”. And just as Spiro Agnew, once said, since “Nowhere… are there fewer checks on vast power” like the Media’s, nowhere he said, “should there be more conscientious responsibility exercised than by the news media”. He was suggesting that since ‘We would never trust such power over public opinion in the hands of an unelected government –it is time we questioned it in the hands of a small and unelected elite (the Media)’ By the way, it is the reason the question has been asked through the ages: ‘how has the media utilized or how is it utilizing this vast power’? As someone rightly put it: ‘Is this awesome power being exercised with equally awesome responsibility?’ If journalists are the watch dogs of the society, who watches the watch dog? Or which is better? That there be external checks on the media to ensure that they do not abuse the power reposed in them or that the media be left unregulated in the mere hope that it will regulate itself? The presumption of a constitutional guarantee of ‘unchecked freedom’, given to the media is an opportunity they say for the Media ‘voluntarily to assume responsibility’. A rather queer type of self-discipline. For how can the Media ‘voluntarily assume responsibility’ when everyone now who has a mobile phone and can load some data is a journalist? Or when every ‘journalist’ is now interested more in driving acrimonious controversy than in promoting healthy debate; or when every so called journalist now prefers to ‘argue’ rather than ‘reason’ around issues?
And so the questions arise: are the resentments against the media largely from its virtues of diligent reporting or from its penchant for stirring controversy? Do we have too much liberty or do we have too little freedom? Are we protecting democracy or is democracy endangered by the way we practice? Have we employed our powerful voice to enrich the people mentally and materially or to debase them in body and in spirit? Do we exercise our awesome power with equally awesome responsibility, or are our ‘vast powers equally vastly abused’? And we can go on and on: why must we ‘give the public too much froth simply because too few members of the public want substance’? If the public cares more about froth than it does substance, do we have a duty to elevate that taste to a more sublime height or do we have the liberty to indulge that poor taste by denying the public substance? And if, as they say that ‘people are primarily moved in their choice of reading by their daily emotions, prejudices, hate and fears’ should we cater to this trivia or should we guide the people to more edifying quests? Are we to respond to the vibes of deadlines or to hearken to the call of accuracy? Now that virtually everyone is a journalist, can the Media still be trusted ‘voluntarily to assume the responsibility’ to regulate itself.

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