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updated: 12/1/2013 7:36 PM

Editorial: The rise of government-shaped news

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  • Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House in Washington as they completed the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

      Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House in Washington as they completed the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

  • This May 1, 2011, image was digitally altered and released by the White House.

      This May 1, 2011, image was digitally altered and released by the White House.
    Associated Press

  • On the day of his resignation, Richard M. Nixon waves goodbye from the steps of his helicopter as he leaves the White House following a farewell address to his staff on Aug. 9, 1974.

      On the day of his resignation, Richard M. Nixon waves goodbye from the steps of his helicopter as he leaves the White House following a farewell address to his staff on Aug. 9, 1974.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

 

You probably recall the famous photo of Richard Nixon waving goodbye from his helicopter as he left office. Or the photograph of Jimmy Carter joining hands with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. They were historic moments, recorded by photojournalists.

You probably also recall the more recent photo of another historic moment: Barack Obama in the White House Situation Room surrounded by Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and his national security team as they awaited word on the attempt to kill Osama bin Laden.

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That photo wasn't taken by a photojournalist. It was taken, as increasingly has been the case in the Obama White House, by an administration photographer and then passed out to the press corps.

The difference to some degree is subtle. When administrations of the past allowed journalists access to history, they certainly still tried to manipulate the setting and the coverage. And often, the photo op was designed to curry media favor. There's no doubt about that.

Still, the subtle difference is significant. In those old iconic photos, the Fourth Estate acted as editor. If for whatever reason, the image would have captured the president in an awkward or human moment, the media would have determined the play. In the new Obama tradition, the editor is the government. Awkwardness, too-humanness, those images would never be offered to the public.

Is this the most horrible thing that has ever happened to our republic? No, but it is symbolic of, first, the Obama administration's obsession with controlling the coverage of itself, and more disturbingly, the gradual erosion of skeptical filters of government at all levels.

We are transitioning to an era in which more and more, the messenger is becoming the subject of the message itself -- the National Football League reporting on itself, for example. But it doesn't just stop with entertainment and business marketing. Governments and political campaigns and vested interests are now reporting on themselves too. This is inevitable. But it also is dangerous. It demands of each of us an increased level of sagacity.

Without a doubt, the Digital Age is an exciting time. This era provides everyone with access to the means of communication and puts information at our fingertips instantaneously.

Want to know who won the Academy Award for costume design in 1953? You can find out on your phone during a commercial break while watching television. Need a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech? You can call it up on your computer screen in less time than it would take you to transcribe this paragraph by hand. Within moments, you can find a variety of detailed perspectives on the new federal health care law. Or the latest breaking news in the suburbs.

It's all there. In an instant. Who, among the baby boomers, could have ever imagined?

It's revolutionized our access to information and knowledge. But make no mistake about it. It's a time also that calls for a courageously discerning citizenry. All is not what it may seem, and the information explosion is also an explosion of marketing and propaganda. This can be a good thing if, say, the cookies that follow you around on your computer present you with a great deal on a pair of shoes you were planning to buy anyway. It's not such a good thing, however, if it tempts you to impulse buy something you don't want or need or can't afford.

And it's not such a good thing if it inhibits our ability to question anything government tells us.

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