Government without newspapers?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on May 27, 2009

Jon Meacham and Fareed Zakaria, in a joint column introducing the new format for the weekly magazine Newsweek , mused in their May 25 issue that, “At an otherwise lighthearted White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, President Obama concluded his remarks on a serious note, quoting Thomas Jefferson, who remarked that he would rather have newspapers and no government than a government without newspapers.”

Meacham is editor (and as an author recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography) and Zakaria is international editor “of a reinvented and rethought Newsweek.” The shift in format is an acknowledgement that “the Internet does a good job of playing the role long filled by newspapers, delivering headlines, opinions, and instant analysis.” With many newspapers forced as a result to deliver big-picture thinking-a role newsweeklies were created to fill-the new role of the editors’ reinvented newsweekly is to bring readers “as intellectually satisfying and as visually rich an experience as the great monthlies of old did, but on a weekly basis.”

Whether Meacham and Zakaria can make the long-dead business model of iconic photojournalism with a deep editorial twist relevant in the digital age is a breathless question. But they do have one thing right, it seems to me, and that is to be successful, it is no longer enough to report the news. Readers, regardless of the medium, are embracing sources of information that interpret news-and, yes, -tell them what to think. While Meacham and Zakaria might take issue with my interpretation of what they are trying to do, it’s not a quantum intellectual leap to understand they have decided to overtly deliver interpreted news, not just the facts.

That makes the magazine a dramatically expanded opinion page. Meacham and Zakaria have bowed to what they believe is digitally inevitable: the tacit acknowledgement that media explicitly influence and seek to influence public opinion. Would Thomas Jefferson, given these circumstances, continue to feel that he would rather have newspapers and no government than a government without newspapers?

Many in Asia and elsewhere will argue that media have no business influencing public opinion, and in many cases, even reporting the facts. Yet there is no correlation between limits on press freedom and economic prosperity. Singapore, which tightly regulates media, is the third most competitive country in the world according to the 2009 IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook. Hong Kong, despite some perceived encroachment on media freedoms following the 1997 handover to the mainland, boasts a freewheeling media and is the second most competitive “country” in the world.

Similar comparisons abound. Here’s an interesting one: Indonesia, whose government has been praised for enhanced transparency and meaningful efforts to reduce corruption as well as its respect for press freedom jumped nine places from 51 to 42 in the 2009 IMD competitiveness ranking. The Philippines, meanwhile, where more journalists were killed in 2003 than in Iraq according to ABS-CBN senior vice president Maria A. Ressa, and where government has frequently attempted to muzzle the press, fell three places to 43, behind Indonesia.

What is different in nations with a healthy respect for press freedom is the level of transparency exhibited by government and institutional respect for individual rights. Although there is much to respect in Singapore’s development, government transparency is not among them, and neither is respect for individual rights, especially when it comes to voting for the opposition or criticizing a high-level government official.

That’s reason enough for the latest effort to curtail press freedoms in the Philippines to be deeply troubling, and not in small part because it appears to emanate from one of the most opaque of the government’s financial agencies, the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). For reporting on a long-standing issue of public interest-unpaid public school teacher pensions-GSIS vice president for communications Ella Valencerina filed charges of wiretapping against almost 20 broadcast executives and journalists.

All of those charges have since been dropped, except for those brought against Probe Productions founding president Cheche L. Lazaro. Ms. Valencerina vows to pursue the case against Ms. Lazaro although it is clear from the recording that Ms. Valencerina claims violated her rights that she was aware her comments were being recorded. Ms. Valencerina filed the case in her personal capacity, although speaking on behalf of GSIS, perhaps because anti-wiretapping legislation doesn’t apply to matters of public interest.

The Philippine constitution enshrines respect for press freedom, and prohibits the passing of any legislation or engaging in acts that threaten those freedoms. While media must be vigilant in observing journalistic best practices and ethics-especially when it intends to interpret facts as Meacham and Zakaria do-attempts by government officials to abridge press freedoms are clearly unconstitutional.

Meacham and Zakaria think they have an important job. I agree, even when I don’t agree with them, and won’t be influenced. That goes for Ms. Lazaro as well. And her right to do that job must be respected.

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