As part of another weird post-election public distraction, common words and phrases in our media ecosystem – with well-established meanings – suddenly are reopen to interpretation.

Minions of confusion, including emboldened anarchists, have come out of their underground lairs and are attacking truth-seeking journalists by targeting their most fundamental tools of the trade.

We are getting sucked into metaphysical discussions about what the definition of “truth” is – razzle-dazzled by philosophizing – while significant threats to humanity gather in real life in a squad of what could be described colorfully as Batman villains.

Pearl Harbor 75th Commemoration Arizona memorial sunrise. 7 dec 2016
This scene on Kilo Pier was about as close as Civil Beat and many other news organizations got to Pearl Harbor’s 75th anniversary commemoration ceremony. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

So I’m going to attempt to put some pragmatism back into this discussion, starting with the critical concern of decreasing journalistic access.

No. 1 – and above all else – journalists seek truth. Before the trolls start rolling out Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, I recommend we don’t judge journalists by the worst of them, just as we wouldn’t judge any other profession from that perspective.

For example, this National Institutes of Health report notes that “medicine has arguably thrown up more serial killers than all the other professions put together, with nursing a close second,” yet we generally don’t perceive those folks as existential threats.

Just as medicine has given us great doctors and cures, journalism has given us great truth-tellers and helped to address some of society’s worst problems through nonfiction stories. If you are in any doubt of this potential force for truth, justice and the American way, just watch the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” on which Civil Beat publisher Pierre Omidyar was an executive producer.

Access has turned into a significant form of capital in today’s media world, and those who have it, or provide it, don’t want to talk about the favoritism and cronyism involved.

Journalists seek such truths primarily by talking to people and going places and asking the questions you might want to ask. In essence, they extend your senses by acting as your eyes and ears (and mouth). When journalists get access, you also get access through their work.

As part of the multi-pronged assault on a free press in the United States, individuals, organizations and government agencies of all types have been restricting and limiting media access more and more to all sorts of basic civic information, such as how local cops behave.

This disturbing trend has even extended to benign cultural gatherings such as Pearl Harbor’s 75th anniversary commemoration. Remember, when journalists aren’t wanted, you – as an extension – also are on the persona non grata list.

I attended this commemoration and was surprised to see (and learn later) about the restricted media access. All sorts of folks were taking photographs on their phones and with other types of cameras. But dozens of professional journalists from around the world, including those from Civil Beat, were kept outside, as part of a last-minute “pooling” process.

During this ceremony, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., began his remarks with political commentary (see it at about 46:40): “You can bet that the men and women that we honor today and those who died that fateful morning 75 years ago, never took a knee, and never failed to stand whenever they heard our national anthem being played.”

He later banged his war drum (about 1:01), by saying, “I give you my word that the 385,000 civilian and military warriors that comprise the U.S. Pacific Command are ready to fight tonight and win, so that we may always be free.”

Most of the photojournalists and video-journalists covering the event were not allowed to capture this imagery or directly see Harris make such remarks.

December 7 Pearl Harbor media meeting JIC before the event. 7 dec 2016
Journalists gather before boarding buses and listen to commander as he announces ‘pool’ arrangement on December 7, 2016. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hugh Gentry, a Reuters photographer, was one of the working journalists excluded from the ceremony. Gentry, who has shot photos and video for National Geographic, ABC News and NBC News, is being allowed to follow around and photograph President Barack Obama during the president’s historic trip to Oahu, including another event at Pearl Harbor this month. Yet he had to wait on a nearby pier while Harris spoke.

Gentry said there was a lot of confusion among the photographers the day before, when the Joint Information Center dictated a pool arrangement, via a press release, and was offering only military-provided images of the ceremony.

Gentry said, “We all have a different look, depending on how we shoot. … We also offer transparency about what transpired. Handouts from the military can’t be completely verified.”

A press pool typically is created when demand exceeds reasonable accommodations for the media. In exchange for access, and the credit they get, pool journalists share their images, and other news outlets are free to publish them. In this case, U.S. Pacific Command spokesman David Benham said 385 journalists had credentials to be in the Pearl Harbor area that day, so Hawaii News Now was chosen (Benham declined to discuss how) to provide video of the event.

When others complained about that arrangement, including the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Benham acknowledged that a still-image photographer from Hawaii’s largest media company was added to the pool (again, he declined to discuss the process of how the pool member was chosen).

Star-Advertiser photo editor George Lee was reached by phone, and when asked about this process, he said he would have to call back. He didn’t. When called again a day later, Lee deferred the inquiry to the newspaper’s editor, Frank Bridgewater, who did not return multiple messages.

The Associated Press also declined to discuss the pool-making arrangements. Inquiries about it were funneled to New York, and the AP’s “Corp Com” department, which led to this bland statement via email from Lauren Easton, director of media relations: “AP is proud of the independent, multiformat coverage of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor provided to our many member news organizations and customers around the world.” Easton declined further comment.

These exchanges demonstrate how access has turned into a significant form of capital in today’s media world, and those who have it, or provide it, don’t want to talk about the favoritism and cronyism involved, or the power it has over the journalism you get. They also aren’t holding themselves to the same journalistic standards that they demand of others, including being open and available to questions about their news-gathering process.

This media restriction wasn’t related to an unexpected and breaking story. It wasn’t an “exclusive,” earned by an intrepid media member. It instead shielded from view a bunch of officials giving generally formulaic speeches, which makes one wonder, what can those in power take away from journalists next?

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.