SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September 15, 2010--It seems the battle that’s been going on between the public and the media in this country is the result of information flow that’s being managed to such a degree that a messenger is in danger of being shot at almost any minute now.

It also seems that the entire country, including racing fans and horseplayers, needs an organization, group or even a sitting President to scapegoat, something to blame for its ills. Either that or people in the contiguous 48 have an unquenchable thirst for Kool Aid.

We’re purposely ignoring the other two states here because neither is a horseracing state, one being too close to Russia while the other is the equivalent of a foreign country, a place where a birth certificate isn‘t worth the paper it‘s printed on.

Whether your ideology leans left or right, what all Americans should demand is that the media of their choice--over the air, print or online--doesn’t discourage independent thought or develop opinions based solely on the talking points of one group or another.

When the news is, at best, slanted or, at worst, ignored, I effort to point out that the media is doing a lousy job, or is engaging in the same kind of obfuscation that once was the sole domain of politicians and corporate leaders.

When, for instance, was the last time you’ve seen, or heard, a reference to Darfur? Now, when was the last time you saw or heard a reference to the comings and goings of Lady Gaga? Media is the rightful province of editors, not accountants.

Remember when religion was said to be the opiate of the masses? Now it’s sports, especially on NFL Sundays when watching and illegally betting on football has replaced the practice of going to church. Call it the new Sabbath.

These days religious types have bigger fish to fry, such as pointing out people who might be a little different and therefore worthy of hatred. Maybe it IS better for society if we relate to a blitzing linebacker rather than act out against our neighbors. But I digress.

The media, myself included, are as guilty as the next group when it comes to trivializing what matters. My defense is that I work in the candy store of American life; sports, opining on events that won’t improve the quality of anyone’s life, the occasional four-figure superfecta notwithstanding.

What started all this were people who objected to racing journalists trying to do a job; to level the playing field for the masses before the corporate minded left those masses in their wake. Maybe the racing press wouldn’t be so negative if the news were more positive.

The grist for this mill was this week’s HRI commentary from Vic Zast relative to the spinning of handle and attendance figures at the recently concluded Saratoga and Del Mar race meets.

Press releases that put a positive spin on any subject are mostly harmless exercises, albeit symptomatic of a larger issue in which truth becomes a casualty of commerce. But releases serve their purpose; HRI has an entire section devoted to them.

Most recently there has been a new philosophy at NYRA when it comes to servicing media. Traditional press departments are tasked with providing information by which the press dispatches publicity on upcoming races and events and the relative condition of a circuit’s equine stars.

The NYRA has developed a new approach that has created a culture of distrust between the two groups. Here are a few examples which, while it appears to be much ado about inside baseball is about more than that: The elimination of anything that’s perceived as a negative whether it‘s in the public interest or not.

When a jockey such as Kent Desormeaux suffers an accident and is taken to the hospital, it should be incumbent on an organization that benefits from his Hall of Fame presence to report on his condition. This procedure was established in the past when hospitals asked NYRA to serve as a clearing house for medical updates.

But instead of receiving an update via press release or e-mail, most reporters found out he had fractured his C-7 vertebra in a Daily Racing Form online story. Given NYRA’s cozy business relationships with DRF, this puts other news organizations at a competitive disadvantage.

When it was reported in mainstream online media that NYRA had instituted a breathalyzer policy for jockeys in the interests of safety, a request made by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s group, the reporter was thrown out of the racing office by a NYRA officer.

When Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver was training for an appearance in the Haskell, a bridge to the Travers, his workouts didn’t appear in NYRA releases. Only horses working for the Jim Dandy were. The Derby winner belongs to history and the fans, not to the track where it happens to be stabled.

When Majesticperfection, winner of Saratoga’s Grade 1** Alfred Vanderbilt and considered a strong Breeders’ Cup Sprint contender, fractured his right fore in a workout, reporters learned about it at drf.com.

When I questioned whether that were true after reading a report in the New York Post, a NYRA spokesperson responded: “I don’t consider it the responsibility of my department to break news or do any reporting.”

The responsibility of a publicist is, as Zast posited, not to create an illusion but to make certain that the business of the employer becomes known and generally is favorably understood by others. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But this is different. At issue here is press relations, not public relations. Given the prevailing philosophy at the new NYRA, there is no need for a press office, only a marketing department.

When a practical joke in the press box backfired, resulting in some embarrassment and inconvenience to NYRA officials, three reporters were given a one-day suspension from the press box. It was unprecedented. By what authority? What happens the next time?

The responsibility of any journalist is to report the truth as he understands it, just as it is the responsibility of any organization that benefits from free media publicity to give the practitioners a heads-up on matters pertaining to the public. This does not qualify as breaking news, or reporting on a story.

This is a time when news releases go directly to the Internet without passing through a filter, as Zast noted. The danger with missives that play loosely with the truth is that the public is misled. Like a play on the old Fox News slogan: “We distort; you decide.”

In a perfect world, where natural opponents appeal to the better angels of their natures, a journalist would have more respect for an organization that told the truth, no matter how painful.

Believe it or not, the racing press is by nature empathetic to the sport it covers. If it weren’t for racing, they would have had to gained honest employment a long time ago.

I don’t know of a single journalist who openly rooted for the NYRA or any other racing organization to fail. I’ve seen a piece written that was against the installation of VLTs at Aqueduct. One would have to be sociopathic to root against the greater good.

Critics of the media are entitled to their opinion even when that opinion is wrong. But they had better hope that journalists continue seeking out truth, even when the journalists are wrong. The word transparency is thrown around at lot in NYRA press releases. Where it falls short is in execution.

Quoting Zast: “Truth is an important human value. It’s the basis on which relationships are formed. When the presence of truth declines in a society, it’s a sign that those within the society are unable to function as a group. Without truth, there can be no progress.”

**correction made 091710