The Dog That Didn’t Bark

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By: Thomas Lipscomb

Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley made a public statement on May 13 that journalists are ?being targeted for real in places like Iraq.? She has been trying to slide out of it ever since. Pressed by E&P?s Joe Strupp, Foley offered a clarification on who specifically was doing the targeting: ?I was careful of not saying troops, I said U.S. military.?

Everette Dennis, a former dean of a journalism school and founder of the Gannett Center for Media Studies, finds this a distinction without a difference. ?A military without troops is inconceivable,? he told me this week. ?One presupposes the other.? It is as logically impossible to separate the troops from the military as it is egg whites from an omelet.

But let?s go with her ?careful? and very artful clarification. After all thousands of bumper stickers do not say ?Support the U.S. Military.? So now, according to Foley, it is the ?U.S. military? that is arranging for journalists ?being targeted for real.?

Sound familiar? It should. Eason Jordan, president of CNN News, had to resign for making exactly the same accusation at Davos four months ago. He had a major problem–no evidence to back up his charges. And being a prominent person in the news business, once the word got out through the blogosphere, just as it had on CBS?s use of phony Bush records, Jordan was caught in a media firestorm.

Every talking head rushed on air 24/7 to attack or defend what Jordan had supposedly said, and forests of newsprint were devoted to pundantics on the theme. And because no transcript was ever released, the entire affair was conducted in an embarrassing blather of hearsay.

Foley had the advantage of seeing what happened to Jordan and, as the head of a powerful union of 35,000 journalists and media workers, she knew anything she said about targeting journalists would likely be scrutinized. So one would expect that she has a pretty solid case for her revival of the discredited Jordan charges? But one would be wrong. Her spokesperson, Candice Johnson, told me Foley can provide ?no evidence? to support her charges either.

A Sinclair Broadcasting commentator, Mark Hyman, watched the streaming video of Foley?s remarks and ran a tough piece that spilled into the blogosphere and onto The O?Reilly Factor. This time there was a record right on the Internet anyone could see for themselves. The Vast Rightwing Conspiracy started to lace up its track shoes for another victory lap.

Foley braced for the worst. The Newspaper Guild stopped answering indignant phone calls, leaving a taped announcement explaining this was ?due to the large numbers of what we believe to be coordinated phone calls….? (Vox populi, vox coordinati?) Foley was understandably concerned about her explanation of her original statement. ?There are a hundred ways of saying this,? she told Strupp, ?but I?m not sure they would have appeased the right.?

Sherlock Holmes?s key clue to who stole the racehorse in ?Silver Blaze? was a dog in the stall that didn?t bark. And something equally odd happened on the way to the Foley firestorm: To date, not a single pundit, editorial writer, or newspaper ran anything, with the exception of the Chicago Sun-Times story I wrote, a St. Paul Pioneer Press column by Mark Yost, and a Washington Times column item.

Clearly Foley was correct in assuming the Right was the only danger to her repetition of the statement that got Eason Jordan canned. The Mainstream Media couldn?t be bothered to cover ?Easongate: The Sequel.? And positioning Foley as the gallant defender of the lives of journalists targeted by the U.S. military was inspired PR. After all, Sherlock Holmes?s dog didn?t bark because he was good friends with the thief.

Foley decided to improve the odds and issued another statement to me. In a further clarification of her clarification, Foley insists that she ?doesn’t believe that our service men and women would knowingly fire on journalists and innocent civilians.?

So follow the logic. It is the U.S. military, not the troops, who targeted journalists. But if an occasional service man or woman just might have fired a tank round or two into the Palestine Hotel and killed some journalists, or dropped a bomb on Al Jazeera?s studio in Baghdad using the coordinates from the U.S. military (both cited in her letter to President Bush of April 8 th demanding an investigation), they didn?t do it ?knowingly.?

It recalls the gag epitaph on former Nazi space rocketry pioneer Werner von Braun?s tomb: ? I aim at the stars—but sometimes hit London.? Or was that the Nazi military?

The average circulation decline among 684 US daily papers is averaging 1.9% in the past year. In some places it is catastrophic. This is the biggest drop in the last five years. And no one is forecasting a turnaround yet. In case it hasn?t occurred to anyone, that means fewer slots for Newspaper Guild workers. Media credibility is in the toilet, even if the Koran isn?t.

The Manchester Guardian?s Peter Preston explains where the circulation is going?-?the defectors are packing up and moving out of newsprint: to broadcasting in tiny measure (though radio and TV news are losing customers, too) but overwhelmingly to the Net.? And it isn?t the Right or the blogosphere that are doing this to us, although that is what the MSM would prefer to believe. We are doing it ourselves.

If the most basic tenets of Journalism 101 are now no longer important enough for the media itself to honor and defend against their own members who violate them, where is the professionalism and the authority that is our main claim to writing the indispensable ?first draft of history? ? much less its value for sale? And if we lose sight of that irretrievably, who needs us? There are bloggers out there today with more credibility than Dan Rather, Mary Mapes, Eason Jordan, and Linda Foley combined, and their audiences are growing.

If Foley is allowed to walk unchallenged from what Mencken might have called ?a clear, simple, and? unproven statement, it will only accelerate the speed at which her members lose what is left of their credibility–and then their jobs. (Look at The New York Times newsroom downsizing this week.) If the press isn?t going to take its own standards seriously, it is hard to think of why anyone should take the press seriously enough to pay for it. In the meantime, Rupert Murdoch?s and Roger Ailes?s success offers a constant unpleasant reminder: the media market prefers dogs that bark.

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