Tabloid Sleaze Is A Healthy Sign

By Tom Plate, The Los Angeles Times, UCLA

It's not always easy to defend the antics and practices of a free press, especially in nations that have managed to get by without one. The press is not consistently a picture of loveliness, rectitude or good taste: just the other day a radio show asked for my opinion about yet another sex-and-politician tabloid story.

It's no surprise that the reputation of the Western news media in other parts of the world is considerably less than exemplary, which is really too bad. A free press is essential to human progress, and the American press, for its many flaws, is the world leader.

Still when it's as its absolute worst, peering under window shades, dredging up peccadilloes from someone's past, stalking celebrities night and day, you do have to wonder. As did one of history's foremost defenders of the American press, the French social observer Alexis de Tocqueville: "The journalists of the United States generally [have] a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind .... The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and course appeal to the passions of his readers; he abandons principles to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life, and disclose all their weaknesses and vices." This was written in 1835, a time when there were many newspapers - though not yet any supermarkets.

But what's even more upsetting than a vulgar and course press is no free press at all.

Too many societies, especially some in Asia, have little tolerance for a free press, vulgar or otherwise. That can prove tragic. Societies that imprison or anesthetize the press do so at their peril. A new book, India: Economic Development and Opportunity, by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (Oxford University Press), makes the following fascinating point: Modern India, though one of the world's most continually troubles societies, has never suffered a famine.

By startling contrast, China has endured many, including the unforgettable famines between 1958 and 1961 that left a staggering 23 million dead from starvation. The authors attribute the difference in experience in large part to the existence of a free press in India. There, at least, the government could not ignore a developing famine because, whether the government thought it wise or not, the press tells people about any terrible developments in the countryside.

This doesn't happen in societies like China's, where the press is not free because it is an arm of the government. Without political liberties and a free press, the Chinese government, imprisoned by its own arteriosclerotic internal reporting system, simply failed to receive the kind of objective and timely data that was necessary to react to the growing starvation in a timely enough manner.

>>Tragically, this kind of self-defeating suppression is still going on in China. Just this September, authorities were furious at the Beijing Youth Daily for running an investigative story about consumers who had been poisoned by a state-manufactured drink product. In fact, the government retaliated by sacking the popular daily's top executive and appointing someone more to its liking.

Another story out of China: A brand of a common injectable blood product sold over the counter to treat liver and kidney ailments was contaminated with the AIDS virus. No one yet knows how many Chinese patients may be infected (and there's no reason to hype the gravity of the story until all the actual facts are ascertained). But it is true that the government, fearful of public reaction, sat on the news for at least four months.

In a democracy, with a free and vigorous - and, yes, noisy and vulgar and coarse - press, it's harder for the government to cover up scandals and screw-ups.

American journalists who trumpet the value of free press are often regarded elsewhere in the world as self-serving peacocks. But the importance of a free press transcends our self-interest.

I recently attended a conference of U.S. journalists and their counterparts from a modernizing East Asian country. At one point, an Asian journalist, ruffled and embarrassed, absolutely begged that a candid comment he had made the previous day be stricken from the record, and from our official and unofficial memories. We found out later that his views conflicted with government policy and he feared the consequences of his candor when he returned home.

We U.S. journalists were embarrassed for our Asian colleague. Vulgar and coarse though Western media types may be, we do not work for the government. That's why the American press was instrumental in questioning the Vietnam War, why it was the key player in the Watergate scandal and why its role in the future will be significant. In the end, the people, far more than press peacocks, benefit from freedom of the press.

>>As Tocqueville put it, "In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates."

Recently, editors in Beijing, in repackaging an issue of the American magazine Popular Science for its Chinese readership, somehow managed to exclude from the final product an article about China's potential for food shortages.

See what I mean?

(c) 1996, The Los Angles Times. Used with permission.


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