Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wanna See A Dead Body?

That seems to be the question of the day: should the Obama Administration release the photographs and/or videos from the daring raid Sunday that bagged Osama bin Laden?

This type of discussion plays out in local newsrooms all across the nation these days, as well as in the circles of the digital media world where non-traditional thought has the same First Amendment power as traditional newspaper, television and radio outlets.

Should you see the goods on Osama bin Laden, determining for yourself if that is indeed his body depicted -- or his body in the shroud buried at sea? Should the White House describe the graphic evidence, already depicted as "gruesome" by Mr. Obama's press secretary, and leave it at that?

We live in a world today of conspiracy theorists; everybody is from Missouri, the "Show Me State." We have plenty of reason to doubt the official line, after being fed weapons of mass destruction, closed-door meetings carving up large segments of the economy, secret talks protecting some businesses but not others, and even a Congress that votes on reforming a sixth of the nation's economy without knowing what's in the bill.

Our system of open government and access to records, for the most part, makes this a no-brainer. Public business means documents are open to the public. But there are notable exceptions: national security is one, protecting health information is another we may be personally familiar with when signing all those HIPAA documents with our doctors. Home addresses of police officers, for example, are routinely shielded to protect local cops from all-too-easy retribution from criminals. Court documents relating to juvenile cases are usually off-limits.

In the case of Osama bin Laden's death photos and video, however, the argument isn't necessarily national security -- unless you accept the argument it puts Americans at risk to inflame a segment of the world already passionate about doing us violence. Mr. bin Laden's HIPAA rights have expired, his address (so close to Pakistan's military university) is already known and he was shielded by a wife, not a juvenile. This is an argument about good taste, whether we are adult enough and if the conspiracy beast must be fed.

Not an easy call to make. Add to the mix the general feeling the "mainstream media" would exercise some caution in broadcasting or publishing graphic material against the wide-open world of the web where anything goes -- and then some. The White House may have felt comfortable providing photos to the New York Times and ABC News in the past, but today's media environment lies on the shoulders of more people than the usual cast of editors and news directors.

I recall seeing pictures of Michael Jackson in-state; if photos of the body of the King of Pop were fair game for publishing, why not the King of Terrorists?

- - -

These past five days have provided a flurry of activity in the news business, starting with the horrific outbreak of tornadoes that left Alabama and five other states to pick up the pieces of homes and comfort the families of the dead. It featured the marriage of two young people in an elaborate ceremony watched by an estimated 1.7 billion people worldwide. It culminated in the extraordinary late Sunday night announcement by President Obama that we had finally "got him."

Just about the entire U.S. "big news" organization plans to start the week focused on getting high-priced talent to London for the entertainment event of the year. I know some will argue the wedding of Kate and William was history, but please -- royals often marry without the non-stop news cycle of cute features news groups were filling time with before storms blew apart their news budgets.

I found the decision by NBC's Brian Williams and Steve Capus (shown at left during the 2010 RTDNF First Amendment Dinner in Washington) one of the most laudable; Williams in particular knows where the story is, what his audience expects and what his responsibilities demand as a network news anchor. He and Capus decided, upon Williams' arrival in London, to immediately turn around and fly back to the U.S. because of what just blew through the South. Too much damage, too many dead, 2010's Katrina in the making. It was the right call, and also positioned NBC to have it's top anchor talent at least in this country on Sunday night when the biggest story from the War on Terror since September 11th, 2001 broke in time to interrupt Celebrity Apprentice.

From CNN we expect all-out; Sunday night into Monday morning we got the same from NBC, turning it's coverage over to MSNBC when broadcast affiliates split away for their local news or rerun programming at midnight. On the radio, ABC Newsradio and CBS News Radio provided amazing coverage of the raid, the conjecture, and the spontaneous reaction that spread from Washington and New York to cities and college campus celebrations across the nation.

The network coverage of the bin Laden story -- Operation Geronimo -- was also met on the local level by local professionals in time of crisis in Alabama and the other southern states hit by the great twisters of 2011. Stations in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa represented many, many others in using all their resources -- and then some -- to give millions without power an open communications lifeline to the information they needed to survive the night and days ahead. Where to find water, food, shelter, clothing -- and even where to try and find loved ones still among the missing. Some of these folks on the radio did so despite their own homes reduced to rubble by 200 mile-per-hour funnel clouds scrubbing the landscape. They did so out of responsibility to their community, because they are the best our profession offers.

- - -

I think about the role the traditional media plays in these stories, especially when seeing the predictable "I saw it on Twitter first" stories. Sure social media is more nimble; it's the direct outlet of the people. New media isn't new anymore, and the power of sharing news and views using Facebook, Twitter, and texting shouldn't surprise anyone. But when crisis hit with the winds, radio turned out to be the life-saver and information tool for the masses desperate for glimmers of hope and news. When a couple of thirty-somethings tied the knot, the world's eyes were glued to screens -- television and data terminals -- so they could share in the experience. When the world learned a man depicted as "Public Enemy No. 1" by this country met justice at the hands of our Navy SEAL team, there were plenty of platforms going around to learn more.

Whether you learned from Twitter, television, the web, or a smartphone, it really doesn't matter who says they had it first. It matters where you heard it, saw it, or read it first. The marvel of today's media isn't how one technology replaces another, it's how so many choices now exist and the power we all hold in determining what is or isn't credible. Followers on Twitter can be expected to turn on the TV to see for themselves; listeners on the radio can be expected to go to Facebook to see what their friends think of what's happening; readers of newspapers can be expected to go to the web to satisfy their own cravings for more.

What remains constant is the need for competent reporting, reliable analysis and responsible coverage produced by the human beings at the other end of the keyboard, video camera, microphone or printing press. It's still the human element that makes those waves of electrons news for the rest of us to digest, and believe or not.

I believe, when we look back, this will be a golden age of the power of communication.

I'm able to read Brian Williams explaining on his blog why he skipped the royal wedding thanks to a Facebook post by my friend Nikki Burdine of WLEX in Kentucky at the same time I'm listening and watching the wedding on the radio, web and television during my shift of news anchoring the latest on the southern tornado damages just days before the news of the demise of the man who ordered the 9/11 attacks spilled over into the evening of slack-jawed Sunday night television watching.

It's golden because I have choices, and am empowered to use them as I see fit. The real power of the First Amendment isn't found underneath transmission towers or underneath printing presses -- it's found in everyday decisions by citizens like you and me making up our minds on what we choose to believe.

Even when it may be in bad taste.

No comments:

Post a Comment