War on friends

Buddying up: It was Joseph Pulitzer, an icon of American journalism, who said, “Newspapers should have no friends.” Much has changed in this country since Pulitzer’s heyday more than 100 years ago, but his warning that journalists should avoid entangling alliances remains the most important tenet of a free press, one that has credibility with readers.

The Sacramento Bee has a lot of friends, and it’s adding new ones all the time. The Bee is friends with a wide variety of civic, business and political groups that offer them scoops and inside access. It’s friends with companies like cars.com, Metrolist, apartment.com and Fanbuzz, whose products and services the Bee pushes on its Web site. And last week, the Bee announced a new friendship with News10, the local ABC affiliate.

The Bee really isn’t all that unusual in this era of mega media mergers, corporate partnerships and their resulting cross-marketing, in which television shows and other products of the market are plugged in papers and broadcasts as if they were news rather than the advertising they are.

But it does make one question the Bee’s independence. In announcing the News10 partnership, which includes the Bee carrying meteorologist Elissa Lynn, and the station plugging the Bee’s headlines and reporters, Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez claimed, “It doesn’t mean we won’t compete to bring you the best possible news coverage. We will. It doesn’t mean we will give up our independence. We won’t. And we will continue to be free to criticize each other’s content and actions.”

Bites can’t recall the Bee being very critical of News10 or vice versa, so little is likely to change in this area. But Rodriguez’s claims to independence were mocked just days later in a full-page Bee house ad trumpeting “Two dynamic news organizations come together.” The independent paper is already praising its partner in print.

None of us want to betray our friends, but we expect journalists to tell unvarnished truths, and therein lies the conflict. For example, another of the Bee’s close friends is the Sacramento Kings, and the beat writer who covers the team, Martin McNeil, is even working with player Chris Webber on a book project.

Is this why this week’s felony indictment of Webber for allegedly lying to a grand jury about accepting $280,000 in illegal payments as a college player seemed to come out of the blue? Detroit Free Press readers have been following this story since they broke it more than a month ago, while Bee readers had gotten only one brief, buried, deferential story saying Webber wouldn’t comment on such media reports.

Maybe it’s purely coincidental. Maybe Bee journalists feel completely free to criticize their friends, something that Bites, having no friends, just doesn’t understand. It’s certainly possible.

Enriched word power: Repetition is an important aspect of propaganda. To repeat, repetition is an important aspect of propaganda. OK, cheap gags aside, why do you think we’re hearing so much talk about going to war against Iraq, repeated over and over again in the media, regardless of the lack of new information?

By the time we actually attack, maybe we’re all going to be so numbed to the words “Iraq” and “war” that we’ll tune out like it’s a bad rerun and let our army run amok. Metaphors that are overused lose their power to strike at our emotions. Why is war on Iraq such a big deal when we’re already fighting a War on Terrorism, a War on Drugs and a War on Crime?

Positive concepts are similarly diluted by modern political rhetoric, and with similar results. Why care about the Bush administration’s erosion of the Bill of Rights? We still have a Patients Bill of Rights, Crime Victims Bill of Rights, Animal Bill of Rights, Donor Bill of Rights, and, announced a couple weeks ago by the California Contractors State License Board, a Home Improvement Bill of Rights.

With political polling and focus groups being what they are, don’t think those who seek to persuade us choose words and messages arbitrarily. There just might be a method to this linguistic madness. Take it from Bites, you have the right to declare war on manipulative language.