Thursday, February 17, 2011

Abuse of News People

What used to be unspeakable is now not only news but fodder for tweets, blog posts and myriad forms of comment. Freedom of information has advanced, hasn't it?

A 39-year-old woman, CBS correspondent Lara Logan, is "beaten and assaulted" by a crowd in Cairo. We know because her network issued a terse press release, which the Washington Post and New York Times respectfully reported, adding only such information as citing a report about previous sexual attacks on women journalists.

The tabloids and bloggers have not stopped there, with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post dredging up irrelevant details of Logan's personal life (no link here, this post is prurient enough), and an impetuous blogger has gotten himself fired from a job at NYU after setting off a left-right battle over a tasteless tweet about Logan and Anderson Cooper, who was previously bruised.

The underlying question, however, is what justifies the risks, other than ratings, of putting TV news "stars" into raging crowds? Do we learn any more than we would from indigenous reporters doing the interviews or, if the names need to be there, doing their work in a secure area?

These are not questions about journalism but show business. The talking heads on cable and PBS tells us the back story as crowds surge in protest, but for a 24/7 news culture, that's too boring. Each outlet has to put its own brand on the story with anchor people and familiar faces right in the shouting, jostling, highly emotional multitudes.

Is what happened to Lara Logan worth that? For that matter, was the beheading of Daniel Pearl nine years ago while seeking an interview with an Al Qaeda chief worth the trauma that followed? We can compare journalists to soldiers as casualties in the battle for truth, but that seems somewhat grandiose when the stakes are honestly confronted.

In parts of the world where it's hard to draw a line between reporters and alleged foreign spies, news organizations should rethink their platitudes about the public's "need to know." We would have known all about what happened in Egypt without exposing Lara Logan and other journalists to what she has grievously suffered.

And we certainly could have done without all the blather about it that has followed.

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