Reclaiming Journalism’s Oracle Calling

2003-06-16
(from left to right) Lando Bernal, Mike Legge and Taka Hirohama
The war in Iraq had provided fascinating case studies of reporting where the cliche′d expression “don’t let the truth come in the way of a breaking story”applies. Many still question the morality and motives of the US-led invasion on Iraq, a most unpopular war since Vietnam. Watching Al Jazeera, CNN and the Fox network, one gets varied interpretations of who were the good and bad guys. The 24-hour coverage of the war by the cable networks transformed the war into what looked like voyeuristic virtual reality TV broadcast. Technology raced ahead of editorial sensitivities and military censorship. The Olympic-style war coverage were limited to the tallying of who won, who lost, how many were killed, and how precisely ‘smart’ were the US military machine.

We were continually barraged by the networks’ repetitious speculative war analyses by retired Allied commanders and academics. Peace activists and their anti-American-hegemony-oil argument were sidelined in the media talk. No Western journalists were seen embedded with the Iraqi military, or Iraqi families or the international group of human shields bunkered down in Baghdad. ‘Enemy’ Iraqi sources were plainly inaccessible, thus invisible, except for the media briefings by the caricatured Information Minister. Striking the ‘right balance’ was a tough call indeed. Thus, the one-sided portrayal of the war -- and which is to be expected. After all, that is TV.


Striking the Right Balance

In all fairness, journalists are generally well intentioned, politically and culturally aware. But journalists, much like their readers, tend to see in any conflict what they choose to see. And hear what they want to hear. Human drama can easily overwhelm journalistic perspectives and contexts.

With the competition for ratings and on-screen post-war fame, war correspondents in combat fatigue reporting on the fly via videophones also operate with varied aims, and under extreme stress. Thus, it would be folly to expect more than what we saw from the network coverage of Iraq being decimated.

The phraseology of the US-led invasion on Iraq in 2003 was similar to the 1991 Gulf War. There were two campaigns against Iraq: the military and the media. Platitudes were thrown into the public domain. American and British soldiers were ‘liberators’. Iraqis were recalcitrant aggressors. To the Americans, it was “shock and awe”. To Saddam, it was “death and destruction”, an invasion by a bullying infidel. The US was not waging war, but “opening up the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger”, according to Bush.

Throughout history, rulers and governments have invoked the name of God to assume a self-righteous aura and absolve their war campaigns. “We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others. And we will prevail. May God bless our country and all who defend her,” Bush said before the invasion.

“God is disappointed with the enemy and he will support us. We pledge before God that we will pay with all that we have, so that the enemy will go into the abyss,”said Saddam after the first strike.

We will not know who was just in the recent war, and which ‘God’ was more merciful until the atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict are open to public judgment. Meanwhile, we continue to rely on journalists, despite their flaws, to unpack the complexities of the war, and whether the ‘invasion’ was justifiable in the face of the debatable theory that Saddam was a threat to world peace.


Risks of Live TV

Indeed, we witnessed a different level of international conflict reporting with images, sounds, presuppositions and feigned wisdom transmitted on the run via hand held videophones. Which was a big leap from the 1991 Gulf War when both the Allied coalition and Iraqi government in their psychological warfare exposed journalists, constrained by transitional technology, to ideological manipulatlon.

The war on Iraq showed the risks of live television when speed of reporting undermined the need to judge the accuracy of what were said. The virtual coverage of the human tragedies of the Iraq war crystallizes the potential for contextual inaccuracies. With endless eyewitness footage transmitted by ‘embedded’ journalists back to the newsroom, the question was whether the re-construction of realities by those isolated from the realities of war were reflective of the human sufferings in Iraq, whether the context of how the war could ever be justified was accurately represented in the stories.

Commercial networks necessarily value ratings and profits over human lives. Journalists also felt the pressure to be patriotic in war. In such a world, the routines of impartial journalism were inevitably compromised. And from today’s war coverage, impartiality was hard to come by, as evident by the explicit pro-American position of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network, or Al Jazeera’s pro-Arab perception. The Malaysian, Indonesian, Pakistan and Middle Eastern media were likewise anti-US. All reflective of their respective national sentiment.

With TV cameras’ predilection to frame sides in times of war, we end the day resorting to the Internet as the ultimate source for other versions of realities. Ironically, from its original set-up as a US military defence intelligence system, the Internet is today the main source of ‘truths’, however fragmented they might be, of the US-led invasion on Iraq.


Journalism's Reliability

With the many independent criticisms of the war coverage by media watchdogs, journalism’s reliability as a traditional source of ‘wise’ counsel is continually being run down. Journalism students are increasingly feeling rather cynical if it’s a profession that they would enter. What damage control can journalism educators do? As a constant reminder of journalistic ideals, I often take students back to the basic notion that journalists are their readers’ eyes and ears. Journalists ask the hard questions, understand the issues, and seek out the right answers. To a limited extent, journalists were the traditional source that readers consulted for an explanation of the past and guidance on what will or can happen given the current checks on reality. Essentially, they were a source of ‘wise’ , authoritative accounts of the interplay between shifting social, economic and political forces. Journalists were then the ‘oracles’ of the day.

Consulting the news oracles at breakfast then were a daily ritual. But today, readers are becoming more sophisticated, more critical, better informed, and thus, more opinionated. And this, my students agree. With 24-hour news updates on the Internet, the traditional “oracular” positioning of journalists is crumbling. Journalists are competing in an environment where stories are being filed on the fly, facilitated by online communication technology, some breaking impressive journalistic grounds in its investigative methods, syntactical structure, and literary expression - ‘new journalism’ revisited - and others falling into the trap of ‘creative’ journalistic fabrication ala Jayson Blair of The New York Times. Cunning plagiarism and recycling of anecdotes particularly among column writers prevail in today’s journalism. But sooner or later, the frauds, they all get caught.


Oracular Function

Given the undermining of what was a respectable craft, how can media educators reclaim journalism’s traditional ‘oracular’ function ? Playing on the ORACLE acrostic, one sees the inherent calling of journalists to be their readers’ eyes and ears, to be ‘out there’ to Observe, Reflect and Report, Analyse, Contextualise, Learn, and ultimately, Enlighten their readers.

Webster’s new international dictionary describes an Oracle as “a typically ambiguous or enigmatic revelation or utterance believed to issue from a divinity through a medium thought to be inspired” by a higher source. An Oracle implies“an authoritative or wise expression : an answer delivered with an aspect of oracular certainty; a medium by which a pagan god reveals hidden knowledge or makes known the divine purpose”.

While journalists are far from what Webster’s dictionary would consider as “providing a medium of communication from a divine source”, they traditionally were seen as“a source of great authority or wisdom whose opinions or judgments are regarded with great respect : one who is considered or professes to be infallible”; something on which one can rely on for guidance of direction. While claiming our journalistic ‘infallibility’ could be a bit pretentious, it’s an entrenched habit that we rely on journalists’ interpretation of events and issues for a “guidance of direction” regardless of the yet undisclosed journalistic frauds in the media industry.

Oracular journalists reporting with oracular certainty and moral certitude all sound a bit pretentious. Perhaps not, given that the journalist’s job is to write informed, wise ‘authoritative’ accounts of what they see, hear and understand. Often, as part of a working ethical guideline, I say to my students that (a) in observing and reporting what they see, feel and hear, they will be clouded by their perceptions of right and wrong; (b) in analyzing the issues, they will be influenced by habits of thinking acquired over years of learning in different cultural environments; and (c) in contextualizing their stories, they will be guided by what they have learned about the issue, and what they think their readers need to know. This, so that their stories would enlighten their readers, thus, re-constructing an ‘oracular’ meaning to a complex issue. And this, only journalists in view of their craft are the ‘elite’ few who are called to do the work.

Fundamental to the ‘Oracle’ concept of journalism is the synthesis of facts in context, transforming hard data into meaningful knowledge. Without the contexts, facts are mere information isolated from its reality. Have media educators somehow overlooked the ‘oracular’ function of journalism along the way?
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