Circling the wagons

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 5, 2004

After two decades in news work, I’ve been sensing a major shift of late in the way people react to news coverage.

There was a time when negative news coverage of a person or event would result in discussion and study of an issue, if not downright shame or resignation on the part of those responsible for drawing the negative coverage. That’s how our system was set up.

The founders knew that governments instituted among men were inherently bad. I think it speaks to the strength of their belief in this that their first amendment to the Constitution established a free press that could keep watch on the government. They obviously saw this as more important than protecting the rights of states to raise militias or the people to bear arms, the right to protection from having property seized, etc. because it was the job of the press to see to it that those rights were protected and to expose it when someone or something threatened those rights.

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Somehow, this system has fallen apart. It’s as if people have said it just no longer applies.

On the national scene, one sees it manifest often in the Bush administration. Whenever a policy or decision is questioned – such as the Iraq invasion, the troop levels needed to secure Iraq or no-bid contracts for administration cronies – the response is always the same.

Not once have I heard a single administration officials say, &uot;Well, perhaps we should have waited and given the inspectors time to do their jobs,&uot; after the rationale for the war – the presence of weapons of mass destruction that could fall into the hands of terrorists – fell apart.

Or, &uot;You know, maybe we shouldn’t have run this war on the cheap. Maybe American lives could have been spared had we held off on the tax cuts and put that money into troop levels or equipping them better,&uot; after it became apparent that the Iraqis were not going to greet us as liberators.&uot;

Nor has any member of the administration suggested that we should study those things to attempt to do a better job, God forbid, the next time we have to undertake such an operation.

Instead, they simply circled the wagons, refused to even consider that there might have been a better way to do things, and lashed out at those who dared question their decision.

John Kerry often cited this trait of President Bush’s on the campaign trail as a reason why he was not fit to be granted a second term.

It’s not just President Bush, however. This tactic is now standard operating procedure for any agency, institution or official who comes under criticism.

One need look no further than on Finney Avenue in Suffolk, where the Suffolk Shelter Homeless sits. In response to an editorial and a column I wrote last week about the Shelter cleaning house on the eve of Thanksgiving, director Terry L. Miller penned a response in that the News-Herald published in full on Wednesday.

In it, Miller picks apart our reporting, going into great depth about minor details about whether she received a phone call from the newspaper,

and how I insulted one of the homeless persons by referring to her as a &uot;girl,&uot; instead of a &uot;young woman.&uot;

Nowhere in it does she address the basic point of every opinion we published, which was, &uot;You know, maybe it was a little cold-hearted to put women and children out on the street on Thanksgiving and we should take a look at that way of doing business?&uot;

I have no reason to doubt Miller’s contention that those who were evicted probably deserved it. Nor do I doubt what a couple of people have told me about Miller – that she’s a caring, compassionate person and that compassion shines through every time she speaks.

I also read the Shelter brochure she forwarded to me which explains the philosophy behind the shelter’s operation. It stresses taking responsibility and clients taking the initiative to improve their lot in life, words with which I agree 100 percent.

Still, that’s not what any of this has been about.

So, how did things get this way? I think Karl Rove and political strategists like him bear some of the responsibility for advising that circumspection and compromise are somehow signs of weakness, when in reality, they are signs of strength.

We in the media bear a great deal of the responsibility as well. Many television station and newspaper owners and network executives are too focused on the short term — on profits, their company’s stock and their own personal political agendas at the expense of fairness, balance and effectively serving their watchdog function. Americans realize this and no longer accept what we say and write as face value.

I don’t know where we go from here, but I do know that the function of the press, as envisioned by the founders, is essential to our freedoms and our future and we in the media have to start doing a better job of serving it. It’s the only way to regain the public’s trust.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9611 or via email at