October 23, 2002

The "free" press

A reporter for a Columbia, MO newspaper e-mailed my local Mensa group wanting to interview some members in the area for an article, and group members were asked whether they'd be available for this purpose. In declining politely I was reminded of the reasons why I have a horror of reporters. I have a friend who says he not only doesn�t believe in a free press, he doesn�t believe in the press, period, and I see his point. In theory I am, of course, a strong advocate of a free press, but in practice, alas, there are many problems.

Throughout my life I�ve had a few contacts with reporters: in connection with my job, my involvement in the animal rights movement in the seventies and early eighties, and in other capacities. Consistently, without exception, the stories that were published and/or broadcast to which I had contributed were full of errors, some of them factual, and not only not impartial but slanted against the position(s) I was trying to favor. In one case a prominent New York newspaper turned a story about cruelty to animals and some people's efforts to rescue the victims into a "humorous" piece along the lines of "look at these crazy people running around the underground bowels of the UN complex trying to save the stray cats who take refuge there; they go as far as to actually feed the stray cats; can you believe that?". The well-known reporter who asked to interview me about this matter lied to me by misrepresenting his intentions as writing a sympathetic story which would help the cause of stray animals in general and these in particular.

Instead what I had said was quoted out of context and in some cases falsely, I was made to sound insane and the whole article was geared to discrediting the UN even further.

It should be emphasized that before talking to any reporters, UN staff members are required to obtain authorization from the UN Department of Public Information or else get into serious trouble, including dismissal. Getting these authorizations is a time-consuming hassle, and I suspect whoever granted them to me made a mistake for which s/he was severely punished.

Another time, on a different subject, a colleague of mine and I spent a considerable amount of time carefully preparing to answer questions from a well-known television reporter. We wanted to make sure we would have all the facts in hand and the positions carefully explained. The interview came and we thought it had gone quite well. That night we eagerly tuned in to the network, VCRs ready to tape our interview: it was just skipped; as thy say, "left on the editing room floor", so all our efforts to "give" a good interview were wasted.

I'll spare my readers (if any) other examples. The errors and bias I�ve invariably found in press stories of which I have first hand knowledge make me suspect that their other stories may be full of errors too. I'd like to think that there may be SOME reporters who care about their sources and endeavor effectively to get their stories straight; I haven't come across any and am unwilling to widen my experience with reporters. As the saying goes, I already gave at the office, and if I never talk to a reporter again it will be too soon.

Maybe "free" press refers to the liberties some of them take with the truth.

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