Thursday, March 6, 2014

Doing the Right Thing

The discussion over the past 48 hours over the resignation of an RT anchor is misplaced. Sure, a face at the US based television network owned by the Russian government publicly resigned over Russian policy in the Ukraine. 

Good for Liz Wahl. And good for her fellow anchor Abby Martin to condemn Russian actions in Crimea.

They are certainly entitled to their opinion.

At long as it doesn’t affect their work. And in these instances, it has.

Simply put, opinion has no place in reporting.

If you have an opinion, share it.  Off air.

What is fascinating is the surprising support on ethical grounds shown towards the two American journalists who made what they say are individual decisions over what, ultimately, is a difference of opinion with corporate policy.

Anyone in American television working for a news organization works for a corporation. Whether that’s the Corporation for Public Broadcasting over at PBS, News Corp for FOX News Channel, or Disney for ABC News.

And it’s virtually impossible for anyone to agree completely with the decisions of a corporate overlord. You can pick your examples, but you know the result.

Should Disney bend to the interests of the Chinese government when seeking to sell and promote a film across that populous nation. Should NBC News self promote entertainment coverage of sporting events, or even late night talk shows, on their primary news programs.

The answer to each is pretty clear, even though we have seen each come to bear in recent years. Some repeatedly.

But no one resigned in protest, let alone resigned in protest on air, over these corporate decisions.

What’s different here is that RT is owned by a government, not a publicly traded US based corporation. And that distinction matters. And it also places RT, along with France24, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera America, CCTV, and the myriad of other foreign government owned channels, in their own category. They are arms of the governments that own them, no different than the US owned Al Hurra, or even the Voice of America.

Each is a visible manifestation of the soft diplomacy that each nation presses in our age of constant and dueling media.

Any journalist working for these networks, in any capacity, should recognize this going in. For someone to act as Ms. Wahl has trivializes her, the independence of journalists, and the trust, as limited as it may be, that the public has in all of those who deliver the news on air.

I don’t say this out of spite, or any animus. I don’t know Ms. Wahl. I had not heard of Abby Martin before this week. And, yes, some of my best friends in the business work for some of these organizations. 

Journalism jobs are hard to come by. Good people often leave the three alphabet networks, and the cable universe. But if you want to hitch your wagon to a government run train, you better be prepared for those wheels to come off at some point. Skidding along a railway sure leaves a nasty burn, not to mention the splinters.

Lauding someone for a self-inflicted wound sure seems to miss the point.

A personal note:  I was recruited by one of the foreign owned networks, CCTV, to talk with them about heading up one of their primary US programs. Let’s just say the conversation took a decidedly sharp turn after I questioned how a story on religion would be covered by CCTV, let alone whether they would consider a series on the role of religion in America. And I remain pleased with the fact that I raised this in an interview, which included the American emissary for CCTV, someone who has also not communicated with me in any form since that meeting.

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