Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bob Woodward, Ron Fournier, and the Three Laws of Journalism

We previously came to the conclusion that Issac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics had given way to the media's Three Laws of Journalism:

#1) A journalist may not injure Barack Obama or, through inaction, allow Barack Obama to come to harm.

#2) A journalist must obey the orders given to it by Barack Obama, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

#3) A journalist must protect his or her own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov's classic robot novellas were primarily stories about the conflicts -  moral, ethical, and "positronic" - inherent within the Three Laws of Robotics.
Now, if you want to see the Three Laws of Journalism simultaneously in action and in conflict, take a look at Bob Woodward a few days back, trying to reconcile the Third Law (protecting his own existence by reporting threats made upon his person by the Obama administration) with the primacy of the First (a journalist may not injure Barack Obama!):

I think if Barack Obama knew that was part of the communication's strategy--let's hope it's not a strategy, that it's a tactic that somebody's employed--and said, look, we don't go around trying to say to reporters, "If you...present something we don't like... you're going to regret this."

Protect the president first, then his own life. Well done, Bob. Nice interpretation of the Laws, exercising the Third but making sure to clarify the First as pre-eminent!  Asimov would be proud....

Ron Fournier of the National Journal, also endangered by the president's men, follows the Laws to the letter, claiming that no matter how dire and repetitive the threats from the White House have been, the president must not be blamed, not now, not ever, Lord no!

This can't be what Obama wants. He must not know how thin-skinned and close-minded his staff can be to criticism. "I have the greatest respect and admiration for what you do," Obama told reporters a year ago.

How closely do the all-to-real "Three Laws of Journalism" parallel Asimov's fictional "Three Laws of Robotics"?
Read the passage below. It's from an Asimov story entitled Little Lost Robot, part of the I, Robot collection.  Listen to the responses of "Robot #28"- being questioned here on his odd interpretation of the Laws - and just note the similarity between his nervous defensiveness and that of Woodward and Fournier:

"I want to ask you some questions, Robot #28.  Were you in the radiation room of Building Two about four hours ago?"

The robot had trouble answering.  Then it came out hoarsely, like machinery needing oil, "Yes, ma'am".

"There was a man who almost came to harm there, wasn't there?"

"Yes, ma'am"

"You did nothing."

"No, ma'am."

"That man might have been hurt because of your inaction.  Do you know that?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I want you to tell me exactly why you did nothing to save him."

"I want to explain, ma'am.  I certainly don't want to have you...have anyone...think that I could do a thing that could cause harm to a master.  Oh, no, no...that would be a inconceivable....oh..."

If Woodward or Fournier had said it:

I certainly don't want to have you...have anyone...think that I could do a thing that could cause harm to Barack Obama.  Oh, no, no...that would be a inconceivable....

Asimov was prescient.  But it was not our machines becoming monsters without the Laws, it would be our men (and women) who would turn into monsters by adapting the Three Laws -  to fascistic ends.

Normally, at this point in Asimov's tales, a robo-psychologist would be called in to analyze those machines which had mentally mangled the Laws.  But we don't have a real-life Dr. Susan Calvin to examine the mainstream media, and if she did exist, they would no doubt drum her out of business, with accusations of bis, racism, and God knows what else.

Don't think so?  Re-read the Third explains a lot, actually...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Biden corollary:

Biden’s office forces reporter to delete photos.
They apologized after the fact. The reporter should also apologize — for complying, instead of saying “fuck off, I’m a reporter.”