Monday, 14 January 2002

May We Have Independent Journalism Back Now, Please?

The Poynter Institute asked me to write a sweeping assessment of U.S. journalism in the wake of 9/11, so I gave them this, which they ran at Poynter.org on 14 January 2002. It drew a lot of fire, but sadly the "conflict mentality" the country was living in remained for years to come. I only realised in 2011 that the piece was included in Terrorism and 9-11: A McGraw-Hill Resource for Students, Teachers, and Writers.

=======

America is four months into this crisis, and one comment about the course of events is now long overdue: the U.S. media have woefully mishandled their coverage of post-Sept. 11 developments. The way the mainstream U.S. media have allowed themselves to become the government's mouthpiece is not only a blot on the record of American journalism, it is a great disservice to the American public. In the end, the media's blind obedience damages the very democracy they apparently wish to serve and defend.

What has happened is not an unusual phenomenon; it is common for patriotic fervor to distort good editorial sense during wartime. But the sooner media professionals jump off the bandwagon and get back to doing their jobs independently, the better off society will be.

With so much space devoted to flag waving and hero worship, the media have given little attention to the deterioration of civil liberties and the abandonment of the American legal system's once high standards. The media announce Bush's new military courts and Ashcroft's sweeping arrests, but they do not offer up much analysis or criticism of the extensive, extra-Constitutional powers these new courts will have, and it took ages for the media to realize that many of those (presumed innocent) detainees from the

Ashcroft raids have languished in custody for months -- London's Indepedent reported that at least one has died in custody -- without access to a lawyer or visits from family.

Instead, as though we were all living in some bizarre parallel universe, some in the U.S. media have actually debated the advantages of using torture on detainees. As if, now that the barbaric Taliban is wiped out, the U.S. has to make up for the consequent decline in medieval justice in this world by fostering it at home.

While it's OK to discuss torture, it is definitely not OK to ask questions about the Administration's handling of this war. We see very few questions about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, for example. Perhaps most alarmingly from the U.S. perspective, however, is that no one seems to be asking why U.S. tax dollars are still funding an unreformed CIA, the agency that arguably should have prevented Sept. 11 in the first place and, even more worryingly, is ostensibly protecting America from the next Sept. 11.

Forget big questions, though, the U.S. media can't even ask where the nation's top elected official was on that fateful day and why. At least two journalists who criticized Bush for his Sept. 11 Nebraska side-trip have been fired for their opinions. (See "Columnists Fired After Criticizing Bush" in Editor & Publisher, 9/27/01.)

Chillingly, the words of the great media chiefs have re-enforced the blindly patriotic approach of their writers and editors.

CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to his staff asking them to downplay Afghan civilian casualties, saying it was "perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan" and demanding that when viewers see civilian suffering in Afghanistan, "it's in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States." That is, take sides, and bury bad news.

Along with Isaacson's remark, CBS News icon Dan Rather's comment on David Letterman's show in September has to be one of the most frightening things anyone so senior in news production has ever said in the history of American journalism: "George Bush is the President. He makes the decisions and, just as one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where."

In many instances the mainstream media noted these incidents, but few have found them disturbing, and the only deep discussion of them has sadly been limited to publications that can be quickly dismissed by mainstream pundits as "alternative," "leftist" or, worst of all, "foreign." Thus, major U.S. media outlets quickly forget about them, and no widespread public debate has ensued.

In normal times, of course, such statements would be considered shocking and scandalous, a matter for widespread professional disapproval and even calls for resignations, but nothing like this has happened. With the mantra of the last four months being "nothing will ever be the same," otherwise independent and experienced journalists seem to accept such abnormality precisely because these are not "normal times."

Americans are generally too shocked and too horrified to make sense of the situation, and U.S. journalists are so overwhelmed by Sept. 11 that they've thrown out their old, reliable moral compass and sense of professional ethics. Everything's changed, so anything goes.

To get a more realistic view of the U.S. media's temporary insanity, it helps to step outside the institution and talk to media experts in other parts of the world, those who have been watching events and media developments in the U.S. but who are not part of the U.S. media establishment.

For Hugo Young, a senior political columnist at The Guardian in the UK, the problem is evident at one of the very cornerstones of modern journalism, the press conference. He gave me his view of one of Bush's recent press conferences in Crawford Tx., saying it provides a good example of what is currently wrong with the U.S. media.

"Not a single one of the journalists present -- the top White House press corps, I presume -- dared to ask him the only question that really matters now: namely, what are your intentions, Mr. President, as regards Somalia, Sudan and Iraq? Obviously he would have ducked it. But the mode of ducking would have been of the highest interest."

Young justly labels such behavior "totally sycophantic" and wonders why the reporters failed to understand their role, "at least to some degree, as representing the public interest in getting big questions answered."

The recent British and U.S. coverage of the Qalaye Niazi attack at the end of December is telling. I was on BBC World Service the other night talking about exactly this difference in reporting -- the civilian deaths at Niazi are open knowledge here in London, and it's discussed in the media quite widely, even a week after the event. The U.S. media seemed not to pay it much attention, following the Pentagon line given by the official on the BBC just before me: "No investigation is necessary." (The Defense Department only grudgingly admitted that an investigation may be necessary after the United Nations tallied scores of civilian casualties.)

Just compare headlines from January 1, 2002:

The New York Times put the info in an interview with Hamid Karzai entitled: "Afghan Leader Warily Backs U.S. Bombing"

The Washington Post: "Afghans, U.S. Officials At Odds Over Airstrike"

The Guardian: "U.S. accused of killing over 100 villagers in air strike"

The Independent: "U.S. accused of killing 100 civilians in Afghan bombing raid"

The Times of London: "100 villagers killed in U.S. airstrike"
Dusan Reljic, Senior Researcher at the European Institute for the Media and author of Killing Screens: Media in Times of Conflict, voiced similar concerns to me regarding press conferences. Though Reljic is quick to note some good reporting by U.S. correspondents on the ground during the Kosovo crisis and the NATO bombing of Serbia, the U.S. media's approach to U.S. government press conferences was disheartening, then as now, when U.S. military action abroad is concerned.

"The problem begins already when U.S. journalists call the press officers by their first names and ask: 'What is OUR point of view on...' When I was editor of [Yugoslav news agency] Tanjug, I would severely criticize any colleague who would, at any moment, even when putting questions to an official, use 'we' instead of the proper, neutral form: 'What is the government's opinion on...'"

The "we" language reveals the problem in an instant: American journalists now consider themselves Americans first and journalists second, and the U.S. media thus take an uncritical approach toward U.S. government action, allowing themselves to become an arm of government policy. Media professionals can easily justify their actions: after all, "we" are all on the same side now, aren't "we." Under the slogan of unity, "we" can forget the public is being short-changed and made ignorant by the resulting dearth of information and lack of wide-ranging public debate, now considered divisive and unhelpful to the national effort.

Phillip Knightley, the Australian-born UK journalist and author of The First Casualty, widely acknowledged as the quintessential book on war reporting, told me how he thought this willing abandonment of independence came about as a result of a misinterpretation of the current crisis.

"It seems that anything a government does in a war of national survival can be justified including insisting that the media get on side," Knightley noted. "But this isn't a war of national survival, so one would expect the media to adopt its usual questioning, critical dissenting approach (as in Vietnam). It hasn't. Instead journalists have been cowed into silence. Criticism, debate, etc. equals dissent equals lack of patriotism and being soft on terrorism. Anyone who tries to disagree is shouted down."

The real origin of the problem seems to reside exactly here: this is not a war of national survival. The country has been attacked, it has suffered a previously unimaginable horror and to make matters worse, the economy is in recession (which would have happened without Sept. 11). The overall shock has been too great and has led people to assume that the very country itself could disappear at any moment.

But the United States is not about to be wiped off the map. Not even close.

To say people are "over-reacting" would be crass and insulting. It is simply the case that with no precedent whatsoever to guide them, Americans just do not know how to react at all. As this is seen as the worst thing that ever happened, American journalists are assuming it is the worst thing that could ever happen, and they are acting accordingly.

Paul Eedle of Out There News, a UK-based online news organization working for diversity in world news reporting, finds this response natural, yet still dangerous.

"It's entirely understandable that U.S. media coverage of America's conflict with Osama bin Laden has been largely uncritical of the Bush administration," Eedle told me. "The attacks on Sept. 11 were the most serious attack on innocent American civilians in the country's history. It's natural for the media in a shocked, grief-stricken country to rally behind its government's powerful and apparently successful war strategy."

But at the same time, Eedle notes, "The lack of diversity in U.S. media coverage is worrying because it means there is no real debate over the exact nature of the threats that America faces and the most effective way of eliminating them."

Without strong and free public debate, there is no way for society to answer today's most important questions, including critical questions of national security. Eedle points to the Mid-East as a worrying example of what the U.S. could become.

Without a strong, open debate on how best to guarantee the long-term security, Eedle warns, "America risks ending up like Israel - with overwhelming military superiority over its enemies but unable to stop a handful of determined people from inflicting terrible suffering on its citizens."

"That debate," Eedle rightly says, "needs to start in the media."

The self-shackled U.S. media clearly prohibit such debates, but the situation is not completely hopeless. Knightley's reminder about the real nature and scope of the current conflict gives us some reason for optimism. Once American journalists realize that the end of the world is not as nigh as they thought, criticism and public debate should return.

The sooner, the better, of course, because as "natural" as it is for wartime media to rally round a flag, the longer it goes on, the longer key public debates are ignored and the greater the risk to traditional values such as freedom of expression, that guarantee of a well-informed public so essential for democracy.

Sept. 11 may well have brought about the end of American innocence. It may also have brought about the end of isolationism as a political force. But what it should not do is end America's tradition of critical and independent media.

No comments:

Post a Comment