THE TONYAPHILE FORTNIGHTLY COGITARIUM

By Joe Haran
WHERE HAVE ALL THE ETHICS GONE?

If there's anybody out there who still doesn't think the communications media shape people's beliefs, try this little test. Select an unsuspecting person, then ask: "What do you think of Tonya Harding?"
Don't ask a philosophical question, such as: "Do you think your beliefs are shaped by the media of communication?" And don't bother asking: "Do you believe everything you see on television (hear on the radio, read in magazines or newspapers)?" To either of the latter two questions, nearly everyone will automatically say: "Of course not!" So, rather, first ask your subject about Tonya. Then stand back and prepare to hear the establishment's Tonya-bashing party line. You may, if you wish, follow up that initial question with one of the two other questions I mentioned. But why cause unnecessary embarrassment? Of course, there are still a few circumspect people left in the world. So you may, much to your pleasant surprise, occasionally come across someone who actually appears to stop and think before answering. Such a person, in my experience, usually asserts that Tonya is a great skater who was treated shamefully by the establishment. Those who read my last column might wish to administer this test via an internet news group, such as rec.sport.skating.ice.figure; and please tell them Joe sent you. But I digress. I want to mention some things about journalism.

The first thing I was taught in journalism school was that pictures can be misleading. It wasn't until I worked in the profession that I fully understood just how true it is: it's not a slam against the media of photography and videography; it is, rather, an accurate statement describing the editing and presentation of images. That was 25 years ago. Nowadays, ethical considerations once thought to be sacred are laughed at; and that laughing is more apt to be heard during the editing of reporting and writing, rather than during the selection of images.

Consider the case of one Tonya M. Harding, figure skater. Here in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, Tonya seldom received the journalistic-media attention accorded athletes of her status elsewhere. And when she did appear in the local media, it was usually in a negative or trivializing context. Why? It is my firm belief, based upon years of experience, that Tonya Harding was--and still is--a victim of class-distinction bigotry at the hands of that middle-class profession, journalism. Hence all those "white trash" racist remarks directed at Tonya by the media of communication. Then there are the "trailer trash" classist remarks. Where are the editors, the news directors, the people who are supposed to guard against built-in prejudice in their final product? Where, indeed. They're probably down the hall at the sales department, receiving the latest marching orders from corporate headquarters in New York. Media gate-keepers always throw up their hands at this scenario, claiming that they're only producing what "the people" want. But I would ask: Have they no professional-ethics responsibility themselves?

At the same time, a person might wonder why no external-to-journalism hue and cry is raised against this sort of bigotry. I suggest you look at the ever-widening gap-osis separating the "haves" from the "have nots." It's trendy to bash working-class people via the media. It's unthinkable--in the middle-class yuppie mind--to be caring, understanding, or wise in dealing with the working class.

During the pack-attack media-circus feeding frenzy surrounding Tonya in 1994, I discovered that most of the foreign journalists believed she was being railroaded and vilified because of her socio-economic standing. In this country all bigotry is considered to be based upon age, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Hereabouts, acknowledgment of class-distinction discrimination seems like pages from the story of the emperor's new clothes: it's not discussed by academics, clergy, or journalists. We've got to be allowed to hate somebody out loud, don't we? Then there's the oh-so-trendy "over the top" style of writing championed by the New York media-elite. With media ownership becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer corporations, a New York media sneeze means a nation-wide journalistic epidemic.

Consider this statement by the San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times in its November 12 edition: "If you were hoping Tonya Harding's debut was a figment of your imagination, the Edge apologizes. It is no dream. Fortunately, she is having a hard time finding work." Fortunately, she is having a hard time finding work. Most magazines and newspapers now encourage such cruel and immoral writing and thinking.

Should any media gate-keeper deny complicity in the spreading of hatred and intolerance ("Oh, that's just an accepted writing style."), they need to be reminded that it is too often contained in their own final product--a product purporting to be journalistic. In theory a journalistic product should be balanced, ethical, fair, objective and unbiased--among other high-minded things. "Tonya Harding: Ha, ha, ha!" Balance? Fairness? You get the picture.

Having previously known Tonya for a few years, I can tell you that she has endured deep and lasting hurt thanks to the present-day absence of ethics in journalism. Yet the media have no intention of changing their ways. They don't have to. And they'll continue to treat Tonya unethically, simply because they can.

So try that little test I described. Draw your own conclusions and take things from there.

Joe's pen is burning up! Check back this weekend for yet another column!