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Re-visiting ‘Now that everyone is a Journalist’ (1)

By Mohammed Adamu

(12/08/16)

NORTH gets lion’s share in police recruitment’. This was one of Daily Sun’s front page stories recently; and which obviously was an extension of the divisive media narrative about the alleged ethno-regional bias of the Buhari administration in the distribution of state resources and opportunities. The sharing of police recruitment slots was done per local government and the North having more such councils than the South, naturally had a couple more of the slots.

This should logically have obviated the need for a screaming headline insinuating ethno-regional imbalance. Just as government’s explanation too that the distribution of job opportunities under the nPower program was ‘residency’ and not ‘origin-based’, should have obviated the need for the North to protest the existence of South-Eastern names on the list of many local governments in the North.

By the way, if the virtue of allowing non-Northerners benefit from their ‘residency’ status in our midst, is strictly ‘its own reward’ –as ‘virtue’ always is- the North loses nothing by being eminently assimilating even where others may not eminently be as virtuous. But the ethno-regional character of our ‘polity’ is not the subject of this piece. The agenda-setting mischief of some media is.

Mainstream and online media, by what we report or what we choose to ignore; by what we give prominence to or what we deliberately conceal; by what we luridly sensationalise or what we selfishly play down, are the reason for the unending ethno-regional schisms that have continued to define the character of our national life. It is said that

‘The truth you tell with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent”. Meaning, for example, that if you tell a ‘truth’ with a motive to stir up controversy, of a fact then ‘stirring up controversy’ –and not telling a truth- is what you should be credited with. Just as I think former CBN Governor and Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, should be credited with ‘embarrassing’ Buhari’s Government if, and only if, the ‘truth’ he told recently about unethical Government-CBN relationship, was with a motive to embarrass it -and not a genuine desire to correct a systemic wrong.

And although you can neither disprove the claim of Buhari-bashers to altruistic motive whenever they purport to tell truth to power, nor can you, conversely, prove their ill-intention, yet no one needs be a journalist to tell when the media is reporting the ‘truth’ with a motive to stir up controversy. Yes, it is true, for example, that the North had more police slots allocated to it than the South, but the Daily Sun’s reporting of that ‘truth’ was evidently with a motive to stir up controversy.

And yes, some species of ‘truth’ are inherently debate-evocating; meaning that no matter how they are told, they are more likely to provoke dispute than they may be to right wrongs or to establish an enduring reality. But generally it is in the nature of ‘truth’ -no matter how it is told- to banish falsehood and even to put liars to shame. Yet we do not always tell ‘truth’ merely to put liars to shame as we do to set the records straight and where necessary even to remedy wrong.

But it is to the mainstream –and not online- media that the aphorism is instructive which asserts that ‘The truth you tell with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent’. Because the online media is essentially –and thus incorrigibly- an outlaw. It can neither be exhorted to know the rules and the ethics of journalism nor can it be compelled to live by them.

The online media lives by a totally different kind of creed, -an amoral creed which argues that ‘one does not have to be truthful to be virtuous’. To suggest that one does not have to be truthful to be virtuous, is to suggest that all that cometh to a fisherman’s net has to be ‘fish’. Yet the Online media is even more forthrightly proud of its outlaw-credo than the mainstream one is with its fiduciary duty to the time-honoured ethics of the journalism profession. Whereas most of the online media makes no pretence about its objective to ‘misinform’, ‘mis-educate’ and generally ‘titilate’, the mainstream media still pretends to ‘inform’, ‘educate’ and ‘entertain’.

Journalism generally, unlike other professions, is essentially doomed to its own self-harming porous borders. It admits the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’. And with the advent of the online media, virtually every phone user is now a journalist; so that all hope, previously, that someday, journalism may have its own avenging angel to worry about how to wall-up its porous borders, is now lost for good. With the advent of the online media even the mainstream media, to effectively compete, is now beginning to reassert pride in the business of stirring up controversy rather than the duty of publishing facts.

The power of the media as much as it is a veritable source for good, is potentially also a force for evil. It is at once an antidote where it is deployed with a conscience, as it is also venom if applied irresponsibly. Either way it is a power already unleashed and at work. And although Daniel Boorstin was being mischievous when he joked that “it’s the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, yet what journalism does nowadays is to  ‘afflict’ ‘the afflicted’ and to ‘comfort  the comfortable’.

We defend looters and we are in aid of them to gain back control of the affairs of the downtrodden. Newton Minow, President John Kennedy’s Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in a meeting with America’s National Association of Broadcasters said about the power of the media: “Your industry possesses the most powerful voice…. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership”. And he warned that “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”. “Never” he said “have so few owed so much to so many”.

Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro T Agnew, who was credited with the once popular blast on the American media as ‘an effete corps of impudent snobs’, in his comments on the power of the media, said “No medium has a more profound influence over public opinion…. So nowhere should there be more conscientious responsibility exercised than by the news media”.

And to this he too added: ‘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. Ironically Nixon was soon to walk himself into the ethical minefield of investigative journalism, at the infamous Watergate scandal. And media ethicists claimed that the collapse of the Nixon Administration ignited by the seemingly innocuous sparks of investigative journalism was one of the earliest and most celebrated contributions of journalism to democracy.

Also Napoleon Bonaparte, about the power of the media said “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations”, but then he quickly added: “Four hostile newspapers are to be feared than a thousand bayonets.’

And so the question has been asked through the ages: ‘how has the media utilized or how is the media utilizing this vast power’. Is this awesome power being exercised with equally awesome responsibility? Many including some reputable journalists themselves do not believe that the power of the media is being used conscientiously.

To be continued

 


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