Jack Fuller on Free Expression Theory and the Tribune’s ‘Waterboarding’ Blunders

When Jack Fuller pens an op-ed in the Tribune criticizing the media, it’s worth taking note. Fuller was the president of Tribune Company’s publishing group until late 2004 after working his way up through the reporting ranks and editing ranks over 30+ years at the Tribune.

But I couldn’t help but note the irony today, that soon after listening to On the Media‘s lead piece examining newspapers’ definition of “waterboarding” — I stumbled upon Fuller’s “News sells more opinion, at cost of sincerity” in the Trib.

“The concern with large news media corporations has been that they would stifle diversity of political opinion,” wrote Fuller. He picks on MSNBC’s and FOX News’ commercialization of political opinion slanted “toward whatever attracts a crowd.”

Now, with the fragmentation of media and audience, there is no clear commercial argument against presenting the news with a point of view.

But there remains an atmosphere of politicization and “stifling” in print, take for example the Chicago Tribune’s definition of “waterboarding” as explained on the aforementioned On the Media very uncomfortably and definisively by deputy editor Randy Weissman:

Our official definition is — effective today — “an interrogation technique that simulates drowning a prisoner, comma, creating the sensation of imminent death.”

OK. Just as inefficient a definition as the New York Times (“simulated drowning”) or the LA Times (“an interrogation technique simulating drowning that dates to the Spanish Inquisition”) but its his awkward defense that seems to reveal political motivation behind using “simulate” and “sensation.”

Weissman:

Simply put, if you look in Webster’s, drowning is death, and waterboarding would only fit that definition if, if the prisoner died. Ask most people if a person drowns what happens, you — I would be willing to bet you that they would say he died.

Even after On the Media host Brooke Gladstone reiterated that drownING is the gerund and surely someone who is drowning can still be saved, Weissman blamed the politicization of the Trib’s semantics on Webster’s (where the gerund is not defined):

Well, I will go along with Webster’s New World Dictionary, which says “to die by suffocation in water or other liquid.”


Weissman was embarrassingly off the mark in his radio interview but at the same time Fuller may have a good argument with what he sees emanating from the dark side of today’s rich media environment that COULD filter wisdom, knowledge, and fact via free expression theory.

It’s not that Fuller hasn’t fully accepted media in the universal multimedia sense by blaming TV news and entertainingly charged, one-sided blogs (he wrote ten years ago quite knowledgeably on the future of so-called convergence in News Values).

Fuller attributes humanity’s neurological disinterest in neutrality as a main reason for the decline in newspaper readership and rise of fanatical talk radio and cable tv nutjobs. And I wish the following sentence didn’t sound so true:

…[T]he information revolution itself has created the conditions in which the emotions come to the surface and emotionally hot presentations of information — such as ideological slant, shrillness, even humor — draw the brain’s attention.

In the depressing epilogue, Fuller buries serious journalism with the sad fact that corporate ownership and consolidation will likely breed further insincerity (uh, hello Tribune Corp?).

And this is where the independent journalist and blogger can keep serious, honest reporting alive. Assuming free expression and social trust works to filter the good, real, legitimate news and information to the forefront in the networked world.

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