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Comment Print

How the Press Needs to Evolve

To move beyond obeisance to the state and right-wing media tycoons, journalists must use military reconnaissance technology to seek truth

Monday, April 28, 2003, 8:02:39 AM CT

I was reading about a prescription for the open society the other day. In it, philosopher Max More imagines a very nice place indeed where citizens "value open societies that protect the free exchange of ideas, the freedom to criticize, and the liberty to experiment."

Those are nice sentiments, but this is the exact opposite of what I saw from the objectively pro-war, blatant propaganda from American media during Gulf War II.

It's been argued that reporters have never had that much access during wartime and that embedded journalism is simply a safer way of providing it. Personally, I find the "embedding" process does to journalistic objectivity what "kidnapping" did to Patty Hearst's views of the Symbionese Liberation Army and subsequently her ethical standards involving the robbing of banks. It simply isn't a healthy relationship.

The media needs to be improved. I'm going to save the big issues of conglomerates and media concentration for another day and just focus on the technology behind the news.

If the profession of journalism is to progress beyond its current dismal state of obeisance to the state and right-wing media tycoons, it not only has to rethink its relationship to ownership, but also has to improve its core function by emulating the tactics and technologies of the military, detectives and spies.

Drone reporting

The military's argument goes something like this: We can't have you out on the field because you might get hurt.

In fact, a number of "unilateral" journalists were killed during the hostilities. World class journalist Robert Fisk even thinks that Al Jazeera was targeted deliberately. I might be hesitant to agree with this except for the fact that a no-doubt errant missile also found its way to Al Jazeera during the war in Afghanistan. Twice lucky I'm sure.

To the credit of the journalism profession, now that much of the heavy shooting is over, a lot of reporters have "unembedded" in order to see things for themselves. They're to be commended but it's still dangerous out there. It also looks as if there will be more wars, possibly in Syria and Iran if the Bush administration's neocon hawks get their way.

So, what does the press corps need?

I think that it needs Voltron -- not the character Voltron from the animated TV series, but the machine. Specifically, news organizations with money should invest in their own fleet of Unmanned Air Vehicles, with accompanying AIBO-like soldiers that can motor down streets, rappel down buildings and walk through wreckage to get stories too dangerous for human reporters. I know, it sounds like a very cool film, but I'm of the firm belief that this will be the future.

The cheapest option would simply be remote blimps. You could buy these off the shelf or you could design them for your purpose. Ideally, the blimps should have some kind of camouflage, perhaps covered with adjustable flexible LEDs. Perhaps they could also carry a small mobile unit. Reporters could also, in theory, use remote controlled planes, cars and other toys.

Here in my hometown of Pittsburgh, they're working on Mars rovers that are autonomous and can survive in hostile environments for many, many months at a time. Sounds like those would be good protocols for the Middle East as well.

Casualty-free coverage

As an example of how all this might work, let's by wild assumption take a guess that the United States is about to invade Syria. You happen to be a beat reporter for CNN or the BBC. You suspect something bad will happen to the banks and museums in Damascus, which the allied forces have overtaken in a month's time. As a reporter, you'd like to see what's happening but there are still pockets of resistance.

You sure would like to see what's happening at the National Museum of Damascus, located right at Shoukry al-Qouwatly Street, near Takiyeh al Suleimaniyeh.

It's too dangerous for you, two-fisted beat reporter Pilger Fisk, to be seen anywhere near that museum. Besides, 19 of your colleagues have died from friendly-fire incidents. No need for you to be a casualty.

So miles away from the scene, you set up command and control in your Damascus hotel suite. It's midnight. Your "forces" have been amassed.

Over the hotel, three of your Dark Knight blimps have been dispatched in a triangle several hundred yards above the Museum. They've been tricked out with both long-range visual and sound sensors. Two of your Speed Racers, gas-fueled mini cars that can travel over 70 miles per hour, are on the ground speeding around obstacles, hiding in dark corners and hearing and seeing everything a thousand yards away.

Your cars are carrying mobile walking bots, nicknamed Huey and Dewey, that can climb buildings and that you can operate via telepresence controllers similar to a Playstation or an Xbox. You and your staff play a remote droid minuet in which the stakes are the truth. It's midnight. And you wait. And you watch. (Can you tell that this a novel that I haven't written yet?)

Exposing the truth

The next day you will know what the truth is.

I'll try to put on everyone's ideological blinders here; It's simply a repressed people acting out their frustration after years of oppression, professional thieves who have come in the night or American soldiers who were really inspired by the film Three Kings.

There will be those in power who will lie to you. You will have evidence from Huey's eye camera and Dark Knight 2's long-range sound scans to contradict the "Official State Version." And you will be right and you will live to report another day even though you've taken "casualties" -- Speed Racer X and Huey don't make it back. You think it's the rumored US militia's droid death squads that got them and, of course, infantrymen look at your droids as prime targets. But there will be other nights and other times for vengeance. After all, only machines were lost.

The truth is very important to the dream of the open society, and technologically empowered journalism can help. It would be nice to have machines such as Huey, Dark Knight blimps and Speed Racers watching over us. They might be able to provide the truth when Leon Kass starts to look younger (Singapore synth super antioxidants) or Jeremy Rifkin regains a head full of hair (applied adult stem cells).

Now, if only there was a national news outlet that would air your crazy pro life-extension views.

Ah well. One challenge at a time.

Philip Shropshire ran a consumer group,worked as a general assignment reporter and sold white box computers. He has written for Locus Online, American Times, Tech Central Station and more alternative weeklies than he can remember. He believes in the future. You can reach him at pshropshire@yahoo.com.

 
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