When Joseph Pulitzer arrived in Boston by ship from Hungary in 1864, he was a penniless 17-year-old mercenary whose passage had been paid by the Massachusetts military recruiters. He immediately enlisted in the Lincoln Calvary and fought with a German immigrant regiment for the duration of the Civil War. After the war he moved to St Louis where his fierce intellect and writing skills gained him employment and connections. He took advantage of every opportunity and by 1879 he had acquired two St Louis newspapers and became a successful publisher. He later moved to New York City and acquired ‘The New York World’ newspaper.
Upon his death, Pulitzer’s estate bequeathed Columbia School of Journalism an endowment that recognized outstanding artistic and journalistic achievement. Since 1917, the Pulitzer Prize has grown into the country’s most prestigious award for the recognition of excellence in journalism, literature, and music in 21 designated categories.
To observe the upcoming centennial of the Pulitzer Prize, we are screening the new documentary Pulitzer At 100 on Wed, Sept 27 in our ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series. The film features many of the talented recipients of the iconic prize over the years who share their insights and personal stories. The film is scheduled to precede the annual ODU Literary Festival that is held on the campus from Oct 1 – 5.
Washington Post journalist Eugene Robinson is currently serving as board chairman of the Pulitzer Prize committee. He was recently in Chicago to receive the First Amendment Award on behalf of the Pulitzer Prize. This recognition of the Pulitzers was given by the association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and Eugene addressed the audience at their annual conference.
Eugene issued a clarion call for journalists. “We are living through an unprecedented moment – a time when the very idea of unquestioned fact is being questioned. What you teach, and what we honor, is constantly assailed as “fake news” — not by easily dismissed crackpots or lunatics shouting at passing cars, but by the president of the United States.”
“There’s a parallel universe that considers all of us part of a vast fake news conspiracy. In this parallel world, which can be glimpsed in the mornings through “Fox and Friends,” which is kind of an inter-dimensional portal …”
“To be clear, we’re not fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for the public theater we serve, and for truth. We cannot have a democracy without an agreed-upon chronicle of events and a common encyclopedia of facts. That is what seems to be disappearing, and I think this is a crisis.”
Eugene’s warning is legitimate. Mass media, facebook, and partisan propaganda have overwhelmed Americans and sown much confusion and doubt about important issues ranging from climate change to health insurance. Much of the nation’s populace votes against its own interests. They don’t have trust in our government to be able to legislate law or to regulate big business. The politicians that they put into office obstruct any progressive action and the resulting government paralysis means business as usual for corporate polluters and natural resource plunderers.
We are immersed in a culture of marketing scams and lies. We have become accustomed to it all as well as cynical about it. Many of our individual ethical choices are made out of fear or complacency. And our self-interest has allowed powerful monied interests to highjack our government and our culture. We have not been vigilant in protecting the rights granted to us in our democratic society.
Now, I really respect Eugene. I appreciate his astute commentaries published regularly in the Washington Post and his past appearances on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ when I used to watch cable news. He has himself been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2008.
But Eugene seems not to have fully grasped the biases of corporate journalism in making his acceptance speech. If he had, he could have used his soapbox to challenge the journalists in the room to recognize the shortcomings and failings of the establishment press rather than gloating about a fictionalized journalistic integrity.
The primary motive of the corporate media is of course the pursuit of big profits. Media consolidation over the years has resulted in six big media conglomerates that control 90% of the content consumed by Americans through our viewing, reading, watching, and listening. We live in an American media bubble and corporate journalists control the narrative. Their biases are seldom critiqued by those who are working on the inside.
In contrast to our president, I wouldn’t label establishment journalism as ‘fake news’. Our supreme leader uses the term in waging his cultural war against journalists who are critical of his policies, his ethics, and his personal conduct. But I would counter Eugene’s assertion that corporate journalism pursues the truth for the greater good.
I would instead characterize some of the news and opinion that emanates from the corporate press as ‘dishonest news’. Below I’ll list some of the most glaring examples of ‘dishonest news’:
– The support by the media of the American military empire in the interest of maintaining U.S. world economic dominance. The underlying ethics of funding the world’s largest military-industrial complex as well as the largest global arms purveyor are rarely questioned.
– The marginalizing by the media of the little brown and black people around the world who are in harm’s way and inadvertently murdered by U.S. drone strikes, national security operations, and proxy wars that are funded by the U.S. These innocent and invisible people are not considered worthy of mentioning much less receiving the coverage that is given to victims of terrorist attacks in the west.
– The trivialization by the media of the voices working for peace and nonviolence. They aren’t allowed to participate in the analysis of U.S. foreign policy and our endless wars. Instead we overwhelmingly hear the pragmatic, rational views of retired military officers and the spokesmen drawn from the big Washington think-tanks funded by conservative monied interests.
– The marginalization by the media of poor people in this country who now make up more than half of our populace. Instead, the media’s attention is fixated on the lives of celebrities and billionaires rather than the struggles of ordinary working Americans.
– The media leaves un-examined their underlying biases for promoting global finance capitalism and the policies of neoliberalism. The pursuit of increased economic growth at the expense of a healthy finite planet is an unquestioned economic principle.
– The non-stop sensationalist focus by the media on acts of terrorism throughout the world regardless of the actual threat to our country.
– A lack of attention by the media on the urgent grave threats to the planet brought on by climate disruption, species extinction, and the breakdown of ecosystems – all of which are accelerating throughout the world on land and in the oceans. Specific corporations aren’t called out for their practices of pollution and exploitation – that’s the job of ‘environmentalists’.
– The parroting by the media of opportunistic politicians and commentators who trivialize the use of diplomacy and endlessly rail against our plethora of manufactured enemies – be they North Korea, Iran, Russia or China.
Eugene’s acceptance speech at the AEJMC conference was followed by a question and answer segment with journalists and educators. Neither Eugene nor the audience cared to examine the reasons for the public’s lack of trust in the establishment media or to explore the legitimate criticisms that are levied against a self-censoring press that is more beholden to corporate and state interests than to exposing necessary truths.
Instead the time was used to inquire about the operation and editorial freedom of the Washington Post under the ownership of one of the world’s wealthiest men, Jeff Bezos. Eugene assured the audience that the founder of Amazon has allowed the editors complete independence while funding the needs of the influential newspaper so as to return it to profitability. That’s saying something for an industry where tens of thousands of journalists have sacrificed their jobs in the last 15 years so that the media companies could preserve their profits.
Eugene quoted Bezos as having told the newspaper staff that “good journalism is necessary for democracy.” We will find out what he really means by that statement over time, but we can draw insight from an aphorism written by the media critic A. J. Liebling that was made back in 1960 in the New Yorker magazine. “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Meanwhile the unchallenged monopolistic practices of Bezos’ gigantic company, Amazon, are wiping out their online rivals. And the competition from Amazon has been stressing main street – the traditional brick-and-mortar businesses and their retail labor force. Amazon’s collusion with the national security state erodes our privacy rights, and will in the long run, weaken our democracy.
We have a crucial need to cultivate media literacy so that we may better determine key questions such as: When are facts and opinion truthful or being manipulated to mask a hidden agenda? When is the label ‘fake news’ accurate or just an attempt by the accuser to distract or obscure the issues? When is journalism pushing an agenda by leaving out necessary historical context? When is the media simply repeating the official position or explanation by the government or military rather than investigating the truthfulness of the report?
There are many independent news sources on the web that are non-profit, subscriber based, and receive no corporate funding. They are trusted sources for news and opinion and can be found online. These organizations include Democracy Now!, The Intercept, The Ralph Nader Hour, ProPublica, The Center for Media and Democracy, FAIR, and Reveal (The Center for Investigative Reporting). They feature some of the best journalists working today including Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Seymour Hirsch, Norman Soloman, John Nichols, Greg Palast, John Pilger, Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez, and Noam Chomsky.
The documentaries that are featured at the Naro by independent journalists and filmmakers offer a critique of American society that frequently counters establishment narratives. Our film programs offer speakers and discussion in an ongoing effort to raise media literacy in our community.