(Originally published in the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rio-helmi/missing-in-action-journal_b_1609081.html )
Some time ago, a local online newsletter published an erroneous story regarding a substantial land transaction in my home town involving a famous international entrepreneur. By chance I was privy to the actual details, as the seller is an old friend. Bali being a small island I also happened to know the editor/owner of the newsletter, so I sent a message to him on Twitter with a correction. The answer came back that he had quoted multiple sources online in his newsletter (including a reputable international wire service), all of them corroborating the misleading story.
When I traced the story back, I came to its first published source, a major Australian newspaper whose story contained ridiculous inconsistencies and hilarious factual absurdities. Once again I messaged my editor friend, telling him that his sources were incorrect, and that he could easily check with the seller, with whom he too was acquainted. His answer to this was that the person had the right to rebuttal.
Apparently the onus is on the subjects of the story to set it straight. The doors of ministry of misinformation are wide open.
To be fair, this particular newsletter mostly gets it right, and a lot of work goes into it. It’s hardly news that ‘check and recheck’ is not the forte of citizen journalism, however well organized. Nor is it news that once a story is google-able enough (10 results is ‘respectable’) it will hit critical mass to become a ‘fact’ of some sort, and can easily go viral. Yet it’s mainly about quantity: as anybody with a device and Internet access knows, about 95% of search results are just straight repeats with little further analysis – regardless of whether they are falsehood or not.
Bloggers, including lazy ones like myself, are hardly ever held accountable for their facts in the so-called ‘free world’. Facebook users will usually only incur the wrath of the law in this country if they try to exercise their right to freedom of speech on touchy subjects like religion. And practitioners of microblogs (okay okay, Twitter) even less so. Yet unless you are a famous pundit or socialite with a verified account, you will most likely tweet shrink a link to a substantial source to make yourself heard by people besides your significant other. If you are famous, you can be as banal as you like without pasting in any urls. However on the ‘free’ Internet, what constitutes a ‘substantial source’ is a very subjective assessment – Google and Wikipedia, for example, are generally considered substantial.
The public’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism and gossip, which has been around for a few thousand years, combined with today’s citizens’ collective cunning in exploiting the Internet and a proliferation of apps, has given the profession of journalism a hard run for its money. Ironically, never before has journalism had such powerful tools at its disposal, yet never before in its relatively short history has mass media been so compromised. On the one hand it has to compete with a public that is using many of the same tools of dissemination as it does; on the other hand alarmed people with vested interests are applying more and more pressure to ‘embed’ today’s working journalists. Formal accreditation is of course an advantage, but it can come at a hefty political price.
A local case in point was the reporting on a supposed gunfight in which dozens of anti terrorist police officers killed three suspected terrorists cornered in a small hotel in Sanur, Bali earlier this year. No one reporting deemed it necessary to comment on the fact it seemed excessive that 16 well-armed members of an anti terrorist squad had just killed three men armed with, as it turned out after initial reports of multiple guns were corrected, just one pistol between them. The operation was hailed as an anti-terrorism victory, even if it seemed more like an execution. Worse yet, the actual bodies were never seen by journalists, just the bags which were whisked away. Who knows what really went down. But you could always google it.
The delicate dance of political power and ‘private’ sector money pressure on formal mass media organizations is not exclusive to the developing world. The US is no exception, and it’s interesting to note that the blatantly biased media like Fox and Murdoch’s other outfits act as perfect decoys that make remaining media look balanced.
Yet everyone knows that not only are more and more people not reading actual physical newspapers, fewer people are watching broadcast television news. With apps buzzing smartphones every few minutes with customized updates, what percentage of the general population actually reads any background to news stories any more? For example, how many people really bothered to reflect on the anomalies of the case of the supposedly momentarily-gone-rogue Sgt Bales who purportedly slaughtered more than a dozen Afghans? But is it just the Internet that is doing this? Or have there been too many compromises to integrity even at managerial level which have led to this?
The harsh realities of economics has left no one untouched. As I write this, Australia’s media giant Fairfax, established in the 19th century and in the 20th century acquiring such leading publications as Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, is a prime example. The story is familiar: it has recently announced that its papers are going from broadsheet to tabloid by 2013. Fairfax has just laid off some 2000 workers due to the lesser need for print” has also announced that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (traditionally Melbourne based) will have one newsroom between them, reducing diversity of opinion and news even further. Mining tsar Gina Rinehart, the world’s richest woman, will probably acquire a sizeable share. As former Age editor-in-chief Andrew Jaspan points out, a lot of this is due to managerial failure as a result of having non-professionals running the show. If this is true, then “Gina-fax” could be even more disastrous for Fairfax.
Anxious to retain some economic and political ground after suffering a beating in the ‘real’ virtual world, the media has made some bad calls for the survival of quality journalism in a game in which the interactive medium is unforgiving.
It’s almost as if we would be given to believe that the originally desirable qualities of journalism – unbiased, intelligent, investigative, truly informative – can no longer survive, no longer have a place on this brutal playing field. Yet in reality in today’s world there has never been a greater need for these qualities which, if used wisely, can reveal the truth.
Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks , has posted more than 1,2 million leaks in the last 3 years, and claims to receive something like 10,000 (yes ten thousand) leaked documents a day. The current super leak is the video from the US gunship helicopter shooting up a van in Baghdad in 2007 along with a man and his two young children passing by who were trying to help some of the victims.
The issue of how two young children, helping their father trying to help victims of what appears to be an unjustified shooting, qualify as enemy combatants, seems to have been glossed by a US military investigation. And even if the victims’ families were ever to succeed in running the gamut of obstacles that stand in the way of getting the case heard either by a civil court, a military court, or a world tribunal for war crimes, the verdict on the pilot and the gunner has already been passed amongst the general public in most of the Middle East. Particularly damning is the audio – a voice is overheard just begging for clearance to fire again, or even any movement that could be construed as provocation from one of the victims writhing on the ground.
Journalists do live by the code that the story must be told. But there is still a question: which story, and when? Who does it serve? Wikileaks’ policy of putting it all out there as fast as possible risks imperiling it’s implied cause: truth and justice. Asange says: “to refuse a leak is tantamount to helping the bad guys”.
But there is a very real possibility that his “all leaks are good leaks” policy might not always serve the purpose of truth and justice. Not all his leaks are of the same caliber as this video. The lack of censorship risks clashing with Wikileaks’ supposed “sense of responsibility”. Though Wikileaks does vet submissions, the speed and subjectivity of the process (Asange: “I’m the final decision if the document is legit.”) raises the spectre of personal obsession.
A few nights ago I had dinner with friends and a well connected couple from Indonesia. Referring to a recent facebook movement that raised a million followers to defend the legal rights of two corruption watch commissioners who had been jailed extra-judicially, the wife erupted indignantly.
She claimed that neither of the “heros” of the million facebookers movement were innocent, in fact she claimed that there is much evidence of their abuse of their own power as investigators dating back for years. “But the facebookers are blind, and they are being manipulated”. The implication was that the elite are still running the show (ironic, as she herself is a member of the elite), and that social media it is no more of the people, by the people, and for the people today than established media was yesterday.
Citizen journalism is not going away soon. But to presuppose that a lack of editorial filtering guarantees naked truth is naïve – perhaps it’s even the ultimate manipulation of the truth. The somewhat crass attack on Assange by his supposed “spiritual godfather”, pioneer internet whistle blower John Young, pinches this nerve: “F..k your cute hustle and disinformation campaign against legimitate dissent…”
It is a troubling thought. Many who joined the Indonesian facebook movement did so not because they thought that Bibit and Chandra were innocent victims, but because their incarceration was way outside the due process of the law. Yet in the end the movement became identical more with the opinion that these men were in fact innocent, clean as a whistle than with the fact the due process of law had been grossly ignored.
What citizen journalism and facebook movements have yet to provide is a legitimate editorial process of fact checking; a responsible system of veracity that doesn’t kill the spirit of the internet in it’s process. Some might argue that leaks don’t lie, people do…