‘Follow The Money’ May Be Great Advice To Journalists, But ‘Deniability’ Is How Power Operates
‘Rather’ rhymes with ‘lather,’ and Dorothy Rabinowitz, TV critic and _Wall Street Journal_ editorial board member, spreads more than a yard (in column inches) of PermaShave over the Journal’s last page today (Jan. 12, 2005). Dan Rather, her target, no little shaver he, and CBS News management, at least are spared other pundits’ scorn for being scoop-happy; “what mattered to CBS News above all,” Rabinowitz proclaims, “was a successful defense of its story.”
Right. Rather and company, faced with forgery, made a couple of weak tries at shifting the focus from the document to its content, and then seemingly gave up. The content might well have saved the day for Rather, and might even have troubled everyone in the administration except a president in an iron casing. But everything was “deniable.” That no cast-iron “proof” could be found, and that denial reigned supreme, is hardly surprising.
Years after earning a journalism degree from Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, I went back for a master’s in communication management. Classmates included several USA military officers in the colonel range in rank. We all learned the three cardinal rules of managing public communication of management’s policies and actions: 1–make sure that every aspect of an action or policy is honestly, accurately and fully presented; 2–if it seems that’s impossible or unwise, then identify all aspects that may need to be publicly denied; 3–and deny, deny, deny. A fourth wasn’t mentioned, as I recall, but maybe it’s taught now: 4–annihilate the reputation of any challenger or skeptical journalist who can see through the fog but can’t get a picture that lawyers in media organizations will approve for publication.
I don’t want anyone to think Syracuse University was doing anything devilish. It was like the wine industry in California during Prohibition — some wineries shipped grape juice around the USA, with a bold, printed warning on steps to take to ensure that the juice could not become wine. (That’s a story told to winery visitors, anyway!)
Graduate students were learning how to operate with integrity, learning what malfeasance in public communication might look like. I strongly suspect that the Pentagon expected their tuition and living-expense money, and the family dislocation of officers of high rank, to somehow produce more than honest, accurate, and fully-presented communications. But then, I’m a skeptic, and cynical.
Deniability has to be the unscalable barricade for journalists. They can follow the money only to be told they’re wrong. The public might do well to be more skeptical of denials and withheld memos, like Dan Rather. I realize he was wrong to air stuff so patently deniable, but good for him for trying. Anyone who listens regularly to _Democracy Now_ on NPR and elsewhere will know there was a lot of truth hiding in a forged document. NPR and PBS give a lot of time to _personal witness_ from people involved in life and death struggles over value-laden events, and that is what commercial media for the most part seldom do, even on _60 Minutes_. We need media education for the public.
–Before I could get this story online, I had an animated discussion with a passionately partisan acquaintance at the local McDonald’s. Fifty years ago he had typed a gazillion servicemen’s periodic evaluations of officers; he said they offered a great chance for dogfaces to even scores with the brass. So he is just a tad skeptical of the content in the documents Rather aired. “They shouldn’t have broadcast that stuff,” he said, because it had been … officially denied.
So now I append two stories demonstrating that I may be a liar; and the USA government is honest?
I was in the Congo as a visiting American Baptist mission communicator when a Congolese pilot, in training, flew his plane straight down into the tarmac at the Kinshasa airport, creating a gigantic crater. Cubans were there doing the training. American advisors also were there, according to our mission treasurer, whose leg had been broken in a softball game when one of the American advisors, also a Baptist, incidentally, slid into him just ahead of the ball. What a situation: it was American policy to deny any American servicemen were in the Congo in any capacity. So the leg was broken by somebody who wasn’t even there. Now I’m wrong because the government tells the truth?
If I seem exercised, you are a good observer. Another time I was flying in a commercial plane over the extreme northeast corner of Thailand. I observed a makeshift, busy airport below; our pilot said it was an American military installation. He and I must have been terribly wrong even to think so, because there was no such operation near Indochina at that time. The government took great pains to say so and would have denied what I’m writing, I’m sure. I’m not CBS News and I can report this, but I wouldn’t take it to court. In fact even now I could be jailed for being subversive. I suspect that Michael Chertoff would think so.
What really bothers me? I’m upset with a public that seems meekly to accept our elected representatives’ acceptance of government dissembling, and to accept that if news cannot be “proved,” it cannot be aired; or, if aired, it must be opinion in opposition to withheld documents or officially-proclaimed “fact.” This is something only the public ever can do anything about. I don’t see it happening. You can support or challenge me, if you go to _www.rfcnews.com_ and use the “comment” form following this article.