Finding the right balance

Propaganda. The word is so laden with negative connotations that reporters, as well as news experts, shy away from using it. Yet, in a town hall discussion moderated by ABC News anchor Peter Jennings on the USF campus Wednesday night, the term was used.

In general, it is very rare that reporters speak about their personal opinions. Columnists, including myself, have the job to evaluate news as it occurs, but reporters shy away from openly commenting on events, as they do not want to appear biased.

TV news anchor legend Walter Cronkite, for example, was famous for never stating his opinion on the air. He only did so on two occasions, including, famously, his condemnation of the war in Vietnam, but only after saying clearly that what followed was his own opinion.

Topics, such as the ban on showing flag-draped caskets returning from Iraq, were touched upon by some panel members Wednesday without clearly condemning the policy.

Meanwhile, Tampa Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth, having the liberty of a job that entitles him to comment on “whatever annoys him,” said, “I guess you could call it propaganda.”

Ruth also said that certain stories were not put into “proper context” and were “misleading.”

A characteristic example of this is the repeated association between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden by mentioning them in the same sentence. Vice President Dick Cheney did so, even after both President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had conceded there was no evidence of such a connection. Yet, the repetition seemed to drive the point home to the American public. According to a Washington Post poll in September, 69 percent of the American public believed there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks.

I have always found it worrisome that our government appears to be getting away with such tactics and statements that do not have any basis in fact.

Wednesday night, I had the chance to briefly ask Peter Jennings after the town hall meeting what he thinks about this matter.

According to him, “the evidence has been a consistent message from some parts of the administration,” not a delivery of verifiable facts.

Jennings called the media a “filter,” stressing that this is “not necessarily a bad thing” but that the administration had every right to try to bypass the media to get its message across to the public. He further said that it is the media’s job to question the validity of statements, be it statements of members of the administration or members of the press itself.

This, of course, is very hard to do while broadcast and print media is being accused by the administration of focusing on the negative aspects of the war effort, thereby painting an image that does not reflect reality.

During the town hall discussion, Karen Brown Dunlap, President of the Poynter Institute, said, “people will find a (news) source they trust.” This, echoing a statement by Susan McManus, political analyst and political science professor at USF, indicates that viewers and readers are turning to news outlets that reflect what they believe is “the truth.”

Obviously, in a democracy it is important that viewers get a balanced picture of news and current affairs. Dunlap called this essential to “keep a society together and act as citizens,” a view that was applauded by the audience present.

Sadly, this does not appear to be happening to the satisfaction of all viewers. As one audience member stated, she “had not watched the news since the beginning of the (Iraq) war,” so some viewers appear to be simply tuning off .

As the next presidential election is approaching, we will see if the media can continue to fulfill the job of evaluating facts as well as remaining objective outside of the editorial page.

As Jennings himself said, “I don’t believe anything is too complicated for TV.” There may be hope yet.

Sebastian Meyer is a junior majoring in environmental science and is an Oracle Opinion editor.