Flying down the coast in a jet lends a certain personal perspective to reports of the latest terrorist hijacking atrocity.
In the last few days, as this all-too-familiar drama was winding to its conclusion, there were several sharp reminders of the role of the press in this tragedies. A psychiatrist was quoted as saying the terrorist and the media were made for each other. They feed on each other; without the assistance of one, neither could exist. Access to the mass media was essential if the terrorist message was to be delivered. Yet if the message were not broadcast as we learned during the Hanafi Muslim siege in Washingotn earlier this year,wholesale slaughter was threatened.
As the denouement of the hijacking approached Monday, the news agency, Reuter filed a dispatch to its worldwide clients. A German aircraft carrying 'a squad of crack anti-guerrilla policemen was reported to have landed at the same Somali airport where the hijackers were holding those 86 hostages. The German forces was believed to have landed "for a possible attempt to storm" the hijacked plane.
Moments after that dispatch was distributed over the wires, Reuter moved an adivsory to editors. The agency had just been asked by the West German government "not to report anything concerning the movements of anti-guerrilla squads for use in a possible attempts to storm the hijacked plane." The Germans further warned: "Such reports could prejudice the safety of the hostages."
Reuter did not retract its dispatch, however, because it said a similar report already had been made by a competing news service, in this case Agence France-Presse. Nor did Reuter offer its clients advice on how to deal with its dispatch: that decision, it reportedly said, was up to the individual clients.
In other words, give them what they want - an let them decide what to do with it. It's much like the practice described in the latest Press section of Time magazine of having "news doctors" - highly paid outside consultants - offer advice on fixing up ailing publications. "We look at the newspaper as a product," one of them is quoted as saying, "just as we would something from Procter & Gamble."
Once again, the message is: Does it sell?
The idea of the mass media feeding presumed mass appetites by providing the latest sensation is not limited, of course, to publications. Television, too, is deeply affected. To be in television, either news or entertainment, is to be caught up in a contant struggle to achieve top ratings. As we saw again this week in the big shakeup at the top of CBS following earlier ones at NBC and ABC, if your ratings slip you're out. The distinction between news and entertainment thus increasingly becomes blurred.
The point is not that the standards of some are purer than others. It's that questions about the ethics and values and judgements and realities of the news business are becoming far more complex and difficult, particularly in this age of terrorism.
The questions are endless: about when to publish, and not to publish; about not just the public's right to know, but when and how much: about agreement, if any, on what is responsible and what is not; about competition and freedom and rights and many other aspects of news.
These, at least, deserve serious attention and fresh thinking. It was in that frame of mind that I turned, after an uneventful flight yesterday, to what is billed as a major study being conducted by the Graduate Studies Center of the University of Missouri Schoolof Journalism, once noted worldwide as a leading place for the training of journalists.
The request is considerable but, given what the covering letter describes as "the significance of the research in which you are being asked to participate," supposedly well worth the effort. Besides, the Graduate Studies Center of the School of Journalism has authorized the granting of a Reasearch Participation Certificate for one's contribution. There is even a photograph of the Research Participation Certificate, suitable for framing and signed by both the Project Committee Chairman (who is alos chairman of the Journalism School's News and Editorial Department) and the Project Director. Actual size of the Certificate is 5 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches, the covering letter states. And all for a "most valuable" research cause.
Naturally, the study is an in-depth one. The subject is the American reporter. The aim is "to get at the personal maning of your role in your community and the press." The recipient is asked to respond through three research methods. Each affords, one is told, "a unique form of self-expression."
One sheet of paper bears the heading:
"WHO I AM"
To get the full flavor of the instructions, you'll have to bear with the full introductory instructions. They are:
"We'd like you to describe yourself by making a check mark on each line scale on the back of this sheet. If you consider yourself rather throughly like one to the two adjectives at the ends of a line, place a check mark in the line space next to it. (Each line is divided into seven spaces.) If you're roughly a 50:50 mixture check the middle line space. If you're not 50:50 but not far from that, check the space adjacent to the middle one, in the direction of the adjacetive you're most like. Or ifyou're largely like one but include some of the opposite , check not the end space but the space next to the end one. If you are uncertain check the middle space - it also means 'no reliable answer available.'"
The follows a sample on which you can try out yourself. On a scale of one to seven, you are (check appropriate box) somewhere between "rash" and "deliberate." A helpful description is given: "A person whose self estimate is mostly deliberate, but a little rash would check the scale as follows." Check box six.
The other side contains 16 other choices on such things as "I am . . . " either cautious or venturesome, first or last, experimenting or plodding, unsuccessful or successful.
Many more research questions follow. One page is devoted to:
"WHAT DETERMINES ONES LIFE"
You are given 10 sentences, and asked to fill in one of the missing words - never, seldom, occasionally, oftenusually, always. As in the sentence:
"The success in business of a person - depends on his luck rather than on his intelligence."
More pages, more questions. What do you write about? How often do your write? What do you want to write? What you may write? And then the heart of this exercise: you are to assess the correctness or incorrectness of some 80 statements purportedly dealing with the news business. "I don't have anything to contribute; I just hack away," one reads. And another: "We give good coverage because we have teamwork all the way up the line."
As an example of a thoughtful search for new ways of dealing with journalistic problems, this is hardly encouraging. The questions are real and serious enough. They go far beyond the concerns of journalism and journalists. Perhaps some of these questions are being addressed at the schools, perhaps serious scholars are attempting to deal with them, perhaps something more than Research Participation Certificates are being offered. But this evidence of the work coming from a famous journalistic institution is more than depressing. In a word, it's worthless.