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Journalist intimidation doesn't just come from the barrel of a gun

Jan 8, 2015

Credit Free Press

Yesterday, terrorists walked into an editorial meeting at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and started shooting. Twelve people died.

The whole world finds this horrific attempt at media intimidation in Paris unacceptable, but there remains an acceptable form of intimidating the media that we operate under every day.

If you're a fan of West Wing, Borgen, or any of Armando Iannucci's movies and shows such as In the Loop or Veep, you know what I'm talking about. Watching the politicos try to manipulate and intimidate journalists makes for colorful television and great drama. But it's all more real than you might want to believe. There really is a game the media handlers play to try and control what journalists tell you about the people in power.

Let's be clear, Michigan Radio reporters are rarely threatened with violence. The techniques are more subtle and because of that, perhaps more effective. Media handlers will sometimes threaten to block a reporter's access to sources and scoops if the reporter doesn't tell the desired story. Personal relationships are exploited as journalists are made to feel part of the "in-crowd" and invited to the right social events, but only if they play along.

In today’s newsrooms, there are frequent threats and attempts to get reporters fired and some reporters have lost their jobs because they didn't toe the line and were unlucky enough to work at a media outlet that wasn't committed to journalism. Fighting back against the pressures of spin doctors isn't for the faint of heart.

Let's be clear, Michigan Radio reporters are rarely threatened with violence. The techniques are more subtle and because of that, perhaps more effective.

While no one has been hurt, it's no picnic to have a member of the Granholm administration try to get Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry fired over something he wrote. Sports Commentator John U. Bacon was shut out by former University of Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon for not being a booster. And more than a few spokespeople for state officials have tried to bully our news director and reporters. Despite these efforts, it is our practice to resist attempts to influence our coverage.

Unfortunately, many journalists and news organizations capitulate and play the game. They know they need the access to keep their jobs and keep food on their tables, so they watch what they say. Sometimes journalists will even try to get other journalists to play along so things “aren’t ruined for everyone.”

When the intimidation is physical and violent, it is easy for us to rally behind “Je Suis Charlie” and pledge to not be intimidated. But when it is more subtle, we unfortunately don't feel compelled to take a stand, instead it is too easy to silently go along. I worry that this makes these subtle methods of taking control of the media pervasive and effective attacks on the information you receive and the foundation of democracy.