Im un-embedding myself from the United States for a couple weeks, heading south to Oaxaca, Mexico, where journalism is almost non-existent [ although there are two local papers, Noticias and El Imparcial ] but mescal and tortas are plentiful.
Why Oaxaca, you ask. I have a house there, which I built after the Dot Bust. Heres a piece I wrote for the S.F. Chronicle about building the house: The story of how I came to build a house in Mexico starts with a kidnapping and ends with a bloody beating on a dusty road. [ Read it all ]
Here are some updates on missing reporters and first-hand accounts of reporting from Iraq:
Newsday reporter and photographer still missing after being ordered out of Baghdad. [ Read it ]
Freelance Louisville photographer also missing. Her father, paper's ex-publisher, voices concern. [ Read it ]
Christian Science Monitor editor disappointed that U.S. military kicked out paper's reporter. [ Read it ]
Fayetteville Observer photographer tells story of ambush and seeking safety in a sandstorm. [ Read it ]
The number and success of warblogs continues to shock and awe mainstream journalists, even Dan Gilmorr, who is more "new" media than old.
Gilmorr suggests that the rapid growth of aggreblogs - blogs that are aggregating news as it breaks - Command Post and The Agonist demonstrates that "the future of news is becoming more and more obvious."
As much a believer as I am in Dan's oracle-like abilities, that statement needs to be qualified: The future of news is multi-faceted, multi-platformed and, certainly, multi-voiced. Blogs will be component - providing near real-time updates and diversity of sources and point of view -- but so will be newspapers, as long as they recognize the changing news environment and adapt by becoming less dependent on breaking news and more assertive toward providing analysis, investigation and context.
I thought every large newspaper had already written the blog discovery story, but the Baltimore Sun weighed in with one today.
After interviews with Command Post founder Alan Nelson ("What's surprising to me, though, is how serious many bloggers are about finding the truth.") and Gilmorr ("The more voices, the better, in my view.") the story offers an observation about bloggers from columnist Matt Welch that all newspaper editors should paste on their keyboards:
"They may be amateurs, but they know how to engage readers and spark debate."
Baltimore Sun Weblogs cover the war without mainstream restraints
While I am often critical of newspapers as institutions, I have great admiration for editors, reporters and photographers who take risks in their work - both creative and physical. Many of these journalists are in Iraq today. Here's an update on some of them:
Newsday: Iraq Expels 2 Newsday Journalists; Whereabouts Unknown
Newsday has lost contact since Monday with its two journalists assigned to cover the war in Baghdad, after they and a small group of Western journalists were rounded up by Iraqi officials and apparently ordered to leave the country, according to other reporters in the Iraqi capital.
Editor & Publisher: Group Asks for Investigation on British Deaths
PARIS -- (AP) A journalists' watchdog group Wednesday asked U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the top commander in Iraq, to order an investigation into the death of a British reporter in the war and the disappearance of his two colleagues.
Newsday: Reporters Strike Out Alone
The unilaterals face more pronounced dangers than journalists traveling with troops, including greater risks of being attacked by hostile Iraqis, being misidentified by allied troops or getting caught in crossfire.
Washington Post: Unembedded Journalist's Report Provokes Military Ire
Phil Smucker, who writes for the Christian Science Monitor, told his paper yesterday that military police were going through his belongings and were concerned that he had disclosed too much information in an interview.
Editor & Publisher: 'Chicago Trib' Reporter Offers Chilling Account
Unilaterals who are up closer to Baghdad are having to abandon their vehicles as they cannot source gasoline to keep them running.
And don't forget these newspaper-related war blogs:
Christian Science Monitor: Daily journal from Kuwait by reporter Ben Arnoldy.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Audio, video, photo coverage; bios of reporters.
Raleigh News & Observer: A daily journal by reporter Jay Price
Poynter Institute, Coverage Diary: Stories about media coverage or issues.
Jeff Jarvis: War in Iraq weblog (runs on 10 Advance.net sites).
Seattle P-I: Reporter aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Seattle Times: War blog by editor Tom Brown.
San Jose Mercury News: War Watch blog by two editors.
USA Today: Daily blog by Angela Gunn.
"There are about 1500 daily newspapers in America. Why do they all look the same? They've learned their ways from one another a long time ago, probably before you were born." [ Read it all ]
This is exactly right. Look at how much the front pages of America's newspapers resemble each other (the Newseum offers a daily roundup of front pages) in content and design. Individuality, which derives from the reflection of community, has lost out to generica.
I once worked on a few consulting projects with a group of people dedicated to reinvigorating the notion of community reporting. As part of a presentation I did, I put a dozen newspapers on a conference table - local papers from the region we were working in plus the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. On each I covered up the flag, or nameplate, and asked people to identify the papers. The only three that were consistently identified correctly were the Times, the Journal and USA Today.
Why? Because each of them is so distinctive that it cannot be mistaken for another newspaper. Each has the power of brand. And each is, in the broader meaning of the term, eccentric (deviating from the conventional). The stacked headline decks of the Times, the long vertical columns of the Journal, the colors blocks and bold type of the USA Today - love them or hate them, you can recognize them. They are anything but generic.
Cities, like the people who live in them (and because of those people) have different personalities. Newspapers should embrace and reflect those distinctions. Papers in Kansas City, Seattle, Detroit, or Raleigh should be distinguishable from one another. But they are not, aside from the names of the public figures and athletes who fill their pages. (I'm willing to acknowledge the view that America itself is generic and therefore so is its journalism, but I prefer to see the regional diversity).
Difference demands risk, even if that difference is defined as an adherence to tradition, such as is the case with the Times and the Journal. Most modern newspapers fear risk and therefore tread lightly around innovation.
Referring to the advance of "technology (that) has empowered a lot of writers and reporters to be their own publishers, Parr says, "The next revolution is still up for grabs."
Indeed it is. Change occurs first on the margins. If newspapers don't break out of their huddle in the center, they won't get the opportunity to be a part of it.
First Draft Retooling the New Factory
Predictably, a debate is raging over the propriety of publishing (or airing) photographs of the U.S. soldiers held as POWs by the Iraq.
Howard Kurtz reported today in the Washington Post: "A number of major newspapers refused to run Iraqi pictures of American prisoners of war yesterday, even as several television networks dropped their earlier reticence and aired at least a few seconds of the chilling videotape." The Post was among the papers that did not run the photos. [ See the photos here on ArabNews.com ]
This issue arises every time a major news event produces a harsh photograph that, while factual, assaults human sensibility.
In 1995, for example, a photograph of a firefighter cradling the limp body of a burned, bloodied 1-year-old child from the ruins of the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City was spurned by some newspapers (including my own at the time) as too gruesome for the front page, while other publications, such as Newsweek, put it on their covers. The photograph later won the Pulitzer for spot photography.
Earlier, in 1993, newspapers or news magazines that published a photograph of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged by a jeering mob through the dusty streets of Mogadishu drew invective from some corners of an incensed American public.
In those cases, as well as in the current conflict in Iraq, I favor publishing over self-censoring. In an open society, more information, however disturbing to the norm, is better than less. A free press is obligated to provide that information. The right to publish also bears the reponsibility to publish.
An essay in the Boston Review by Susie Linfield examines the role of photography in today's world of omni-media. She writes:
"In our image-glutted culture, our connection to photographs - and especially to those that record atrocities, wars, and other manmade disasters - resembles a bad but inescapable marriage in which one unhappy partner distrusts yet depends upon the other."
And then concludes:
"Photojournalism shows us that human beings do things we would like to think are not human. It stretches our definition of humanity, though often in ways that grievously wound us. Can we look at the world and still love it? This is the question that photojournalism poses. Can we stare at what James Agee called "the cruel radiance of what is" without shielding our eyes? Can we acknowledge the reality of the world we have made, without forgetting that a different one is possible-and necessary? At this particular point, questions, not answers, may be photojournalism's greatest gift."
As journalists, we know truth is elusive and answers are often scarce. Questions abound, though, and we have the obligation to raise them, even if the means of doing so seem unpalatable. Newspapers, and networks, should not withdraw from the need to report the whole war in Iraq. The public deserves the entire story; the First Amendment demands it.
Boston Review Capture the Moment
Howard Kurtz Too Painful to Publish?
Philadelphia Inquirer War carnage presents ethical dilemma to networks
Christian Science Monitor War isn't pretty, nor is news of it
Joan Ryan, S.F. Chronicle Of sensitivity and censorship
Wall St. Journal War Produces Rift in Media Between U.S., Other Nations
Washington Post The Illustrated Horror of Conflict
Toronto Globe and Mail 'It's a tough call'
Chris Gulker, in the opening volley of what he promises to be a lengthier salvo about the Information Revolution (sorry for the militaristic metaphor, Chris, but I've OD'd these recent days on CNN and Instapundit), touches on what I believe is a root cause of the newspaper industry's stagnation - its "assembly-line" attitude toward newsgathering and business practices.
The factory mindset pervades newspapers like a grimy fungus. It manifests itself in rote stories scheduled by calendar (Hey, it's August, time for back-to-school features) and sourced by a familiar rolodex of people who will take reporters' calls. [ Read: Robert Thompson watches TV for a living, Salon ]; advertising staffs that rely on revenue from department stores and national brands while driving away local, community-based businesses with exhorbitant ad rates (thereby creating an advertising product that is of little use to the actual residents in the market); and IT departments that hard-wired entire enterprises to legacy platforms and proved to be more truculent than defense contractors when nimbler technologies arrived.
The newsroom itself is perhaps the most factory-minded of all. It values tradition over invention; it sets deadlines to maximize press-room or distribution efficiency while compromising quality of content (can't get the big game in the sports final? too bad); it continues to embrace managerial hierarchies that emphasize "dues-paying," discourage collaboration and drive journalists to think they can actually improve their professional lot by aligning with the Teamsters when contract time comes around.
Any one of these characteristics is a serious obstacle to quality and innovation. Collectively, they strangle to exhaustion those who struggle to undo this system.
Chris points out that the news factory faces emerging 21st century competition from a "very large group of educated people are using an instantaneous and inexpensive global network to exchange ideas."
I'm looking forward to Chris' next post on the subject.
The AP has a story out on Nolte, who is 69, making him the front-runner for the oldest reporter in Iraq.
Nolte was one of my journalism professors and the years obviously have not dampered his energy - or his wit.
Asked what the young troops he is accompanying think of him, Nolte answered, "I don't think they think I'm nuts. They think of me as their mascot."
Whenever I read a revelatory piece of writing like Paul Berman's article in today's New York Times magazine about Sayyid Qutb, the executed Egyptian philosopher whose Islamist arguments form the underpinnings of Al Qaeda's fundamentalist beliefs, I tend to question the breadth of my own knowledge.
How could I have not known of Qutb, his writings and his intimate philosophical connection to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and their subsequent global reactions, including the current U.S. invasion of Iraq? Am I that uninformed, that parochial? Has the American press reported on Qutb and I missed it? Or was he hidden in the large blindspot that developed as journalists focused on the simpler, horse-race stories of the war in Afghanistan, homeland security and the Bush administration's countdown to Iraq?
A few moments later, when I put down the Times magazine and turned to Salon, my questions were answered - by Paul Berman himself.
"Then it became obvious to me on Sept. 11," Berman told Salon associate editor Suzy Hansen in a lengthy interview published on Saturday, "that the giant screw-up by the FBI and the CIA and the Pentagon was also a giant screw-up by the journalists and intellectuals and everyone else. We too hadn't been paying attention."
I'll leave it to you to read Berman's piece on the Times and Salon's interview with him. If you're better sourced than I in Islamic history (which would not be hard), they may be old news to you. To me, both were fascinating.
My point is this: Salon continues, with far fewer resources than those of most mid-sized, mediocre newspapers, to report on provocative ideas that typically only make into the elite American papers and are ignored by the rest. It is this type of contextual reporting, of providing the theater of daily news with a supporting cast of history and global perspective, of answering the "why," that separates mass media from media with class.
The news industry, hooked on habits necessitated by the demands of production schedules and news holes, recognizes change slowly. As Berman said in the Salon interview, explaining the narrow Western view of the world:
"These series of attitudes have flowed together to make it respectable or normal for intellectuals and journalists to pay no attention at all to these vast tragedies deploying across huge parts of the world. Only when these vast tragedies came and hit us in the face did a lot of people wake up. Among those people was me."
Never in my lifetime has the need for context been greater. Newspapers who dare to discard the event-driven daily news menu in favor of an idea-driven commitment to innovation have an opportunity to provide it.
Until they do, there's Salon. And the Times.
A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, I wrote an op-ed piece that I also called "The Language of War." It addressed the idea that each war generates its own lexicon, some of it military, some of it political, and from that vocabulary we define our own views and those of others about the war. I wrote:
"Soon, the anger, fear and sorrow over the bombings on our soil will begin to subside and if indeed Colin Powell and George Bush take us into a new war in a far off land we will need a common vocabulary to understand what is happening - and to choose sides in either support or defiance of these actions. When some be-ribboned Pentagon spokesman speaks to us of collateral damage and friendly fire and unaccounted American assets, we need to know what this jargon means. We need to know how to react, how to wage the political war at home that will be guaranteed to accompany the physical war abroad." [ Read The Language of War ]
I was reminded of that piece today when I read an essay by Poynter Institute staffer Keith Woods, who warns journalists against adopting the language of the military in reporting on the war.
"Language," Woods writes, "has always had a power that tilts toward those who define the terms. Journalists interested in maintaining their independence - real and perceived - have to pay attention to the difference, say, between a war and a 'campaign;' between 'collateral damage' and the killing of innocent people."
He urges reporters to "recapture the language with specifics and precision," reminding them that "as people die and buildings fall and the unpredictable future unfolds, remember that the words you use to tell the story will tell a story of their own."
This is wise advice. Jargon reflects laziness and false authority, both of which undermine good journalism. To see military jargon embraced without reserve, channel surf between CNN, Fox and MSNBC for an hour and count the references to "shock and awe."
(Speaking of shock and awe, note this Department of Defense treatise on how to achieve it: "The basis for Rapid Dominance rests in the ability to affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary through imposing sufficient Shock and Awe." Is this where Rumsfeld got the phrase?)
The best journalism doesn't hide reality behind obfuscation. If it shocks or leaves a reader in awe at all, it does so because the writing is direct, unflinching and descriptive.
UPDATE: Andrew Cline of Rhetorica, always in the know on issues of language, said yesterday that " 'shock and awe' provides an excellent example of the power of words as weapons of war." He also pointed to the source of the phrase more clearly than I did -- a 1996 Pentagon report.
The Guardian: The opening article in what it calls an effort to decode the language of war.
PBS: Terms and acronyms from the Vietnam War.
PopPolitics.com: Fighting Words: The War Over Language
Poynter Institute: Take Back the Language
Robin Sloan of the Poynter Institute interviewed reporter Chris Hedges, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer for international reporting, on war and the press.
He talks about the inexperience of most of the reporters covering this war, how the press tends to report the war as a "mythic narrative" that creates heroes, which, in turn, boosts ratings and sells newspapers.
"In wartime, we need the hero, we need the evil enemy, we need the hometown boy, we need the story of pathos. We fill the slots on the stage to fit the myth. And that's part of the danger, I think.
"We have seen -- I think Vietnam was a good example of, you know, eventually it was impossible for the press to report on Vietnam as a mythic narrative. They reported on it in a sensory way. Once that veil of myth is pulled aside, and people see war -- especially modern war -- for what it is, which is organized, very impersonal industrial slaughter, it becomes pretty unpalatable."
Hedges also makes an interesting observation about how the state "hijacks the language" in time of war and "and the press parrots it back to us." (Google "Countdown to Iraq," for example, one of the phrases Hedges mentions.)
Poynter Institute Chris Hedges on War and the Press
One aspect of a free press that makes it so powerful is its lack of anonymity. Newspaper stories carry bylines. TV reporters stand before the camera. Even if the message is not clear, the messenger is. The news becomes humanized; readers attach credibility, or disbelief, to those names and faces that accompany the stories.
Today, a sad and serious day, the deadline for war near, I find myself thinking of the reporters and photographers who are in Iraq or with the U.S. military. They have the difficult job of finding truths amid the chaos, the conflict and the inevitable emotional confusion that results when reporter and subject share intense experiences.
I know two of those reporters well - Carl Nolte and John Koopman of the San Francisco Chronicle. Carl taught me newswriting in college and John was a colleague on the city desk of the old San Francisco Examiner.
Neither is young, which is interesting because it seems contrary to the common war correspondent image. I don't know how old Carl is, but he had gray hair 25 years ago when used to kick back my stories with comments like "wooly" or "fuzzy writing" written on them. He covered the Gulf War in 1991 and must have volunteered to do it again.
John is described by a St. Petersburg Times reporter, who ran across him during the military training for journalists, as "bald and 44, neither in shape nor out. But what distinguished him from his colleagues at Fort Dix was the black globe and anchor on his left bicep, a relic of his four-year tour with the Marines in the 1970s."
John also rides a motorcycle and has an affinity for firearms. Hmmm maybe he does fit the stereotype.
Carl and John are good people and fine journalists. I wish them well in the days ahead
Are you a liberal embedded in the mass media? Do you feel trapped between your personal anti-war feelings and a professional defensiveness over criticisms that "the media" is hiding critical truths about the Bush administration? Of course you do.
Read Jon Carroll. He'll make you feel better. He tells it like it is: "The war against Iraq cannot be traced to George Bush's addiction to aspartame."
Speaking as "spokesman for my ilk," Carroll warns that such "yo-yo" assertions are giving "being a Commie pinko rat a bad name." [ Read the column ]
While the Gulf War 2003 may seem in many ways like a replay of the Gulf War 1991, the intervening advent of the Internet and the subsequent creation of micro-publishing tools - i.e., blogs - is resulting in a resurgence of a more intimate, more personal form of war reporting. [ See Harold Evans' essay on the history of conflict correspondence ]
Some newspapers, such as the New York Times, are publishing photographs and short bios of their reporters on the web. Reporters from others, such as the Christian Science Monitor, are writing daily journals. And some online journalists, such as Jeff Jarvis, head of Advance.net and BuzzMachine blogger, are compiling weblogs of war news.
The digitization of audio and video enables broadcast journalists to go a step further. CNN correspondent Kevin Sites, operating on his own in Iraq, files a daily audio blog.
Newspapers are slow to adopt new technology and new reporting techniques without the impetus of competitive pressure. I am heartened to see journalists pushing themselves to find new ways to cover one of life's oldest and saddest stories. [ Read my earlier post: Covering War in a Free Society ]
Here are some examples:
New York Times: Bios about and reporting from its correspondents.
Christian Science Monitor: Daily journal from Kuwait by reporter Ben Arnoldy.
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Audio, video, photo coverage; bios of reporters.
Raleigh News & Observer: A daily journal by reporter Jay Price
Seattle Times: A news blog by editor Tom Brown.
Kevin Sites: Audio blog from Iraq by CNN correspondent.
Poynter Institute: A journal by Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden
Poynter Institute, Coverage Diary: Stories about media coverage or issues.
Jeff Jarvis: War in Iraq weblog (runs on 10 Advance.net sites).
Historian and Slate columnist David Greenberg examines the recent differences in news coverage between the American and the foreign press, and offers an interesting look at how news judgment may be affected by patriotism and the pack mentality.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Greenberg points that "unflattering aspects of America's foreign policy have (repeatedly) gotten big play overseas while receiving fleeting comment or shrugs at home."
One of the stories Greenberg cites regards two Afghan detainees who died while in the custody of U.S. Army soldiers. While the New York Times reported (on March 4, Page 14) that "the United States military has begun a criminal investigation into the death of an Afghan man in American custody in December, a death described as a ''homicide'' by an American pathologist," Greenberg says "newspapers abroad, in contrast, responded with indignation."
"While U.S. papers used the Army investigation as the news hook, suggesting that responsible officials were cracking down on anomalous behavior, foreign journals implied that American brutality was not out of the ordinary. 'U.S. Prisoners Beaten to Death,' read a headline in Melbourne. The lead paragraph of the Independent of London's account said that the 'kill[ings]"' were 'reviving concerns that the U.S. is resorting to torture in its treatment of Taliban fighters and suspected [al Qaeda] operatives.'"
"What are we to make of these disparate takes on the same events?" Greenberg asks, and then answers by exploring how bias, for the most part unintended, and inertia, typically unrecognized, can color news judgment.
After you read Greenberg's column, jump over to Andrew Cline's essay on structural bias in the news media.
David Greenberg We Don't Even Agree On What's Newsworthy
IWM: How does adding a blog benefit the Web site of a traditional media company, such as a daily newspaper?
Jarvis: Anything that serves the reader with more information is good for us. Period. We must be the place to start to find out what's happening in your world, and Weblogs are an inexpensive, efficient and very useful means of doing that.
IWM: A recent Reuters story on blogs quotes a blogger who says that Weblogs "restore power to individuals with something to say." Isn't that the antithesis of traditional media?
Jarvis: It's not the antithesis. It's the future. My own rallying cry is that the Internet is the first medium owned by the audience and, yes, that means that this medium gives them a voice. The wise media entity -- newspaper, magazine, radio or TV station -- will use it to listen to that audience, to find out what they care about and what matters to them and what they have to say. This creates a new and powerful relationship with the audience.
These are two important points for the future of newspapers: More information is better and connection to audience is paramount. The inverse, of course, is that reduced news holes, smaller reporting staffs and editorial aloofness are bad.
Stated so simply, these precepts seem obvious, but mainstream newspapers have always been slow to recognize new readership. This time, since the audience has the technology to make itself heard, maybe newspapers will pay attention.
I received a fair amount of email in response to my piece in American Journalism Review about the difficulties small-town editors have in hiring and retaining quality staff. Here's a letter from one reader (names deleted, emphasis added) who's found professional fulfillment, at least for now, on a small paper.
"I was thoroughly impressed with your article "Vacancies in Vacaville" in the March issue of AJR. Many of the issues discussed are ones that we deal with on a daily basis at our paper in (the Pacific Northwest). The . is a roughly 18,000 circ. paper that feels the pains of every other small daily. The issues you discuss resonate with me especially. The one thing that seems to me is missing from the teaching of burgeoning journalists is warning about the expectations that await them. But students are also not doing the work they need to do when they look for jobs.
"I had a great journalism prof at Humboldt State University, a former Bay Area journalist who spent 10 years at the Oakland Tribune before going to grad school, and he laid it out about the difference between big and small newspapers. At small papers, he said, you worked very hard, for little pay, but came away with an invaluable set of varied skills and experiences. But, he said, don't do it for the money. He said that constantly.
"So, bright-eyed out of college, I started at a paper in (deleted), (owned by the ominous ANG-Media News partnership) and settled in for Top Ramen and gritty experience. What I got was a rude awakening about what Tom Brooker talks about in your article. I felt like the bottom line. Constantly. So, after only nine months, and against my resume's better judgement, I started looking. The pay was low, and the hours long, but that wasn't the principle factor that made me leave. It was the mere fact that the publisher at the time, and the editor, though she had heart, were more concerned with budgets than good news -- because, primarily, that's what they constantly heard from the "front office." I wasn't learning anything about journalism after the first six months.
"What I found, even with trading down a few thousand in circulation at (deleted), was the exact opposite. A publisher, an editor and a company that seems to care more about overall integrity than the bottom line. By no means is the pay much better here. The difference is that I want to work the hours, I want to be proud of the content and look, and I get to hear positive comments from the community. I've even placed in the SPJ awards. As a young pup in the business, these things are more important. Regardless of the money, or the hours. I just want to learn the business. Editors like Diane Barney and my current editor . are the ones we should all look for out of school.
"I would suggest that young journalists take more time, research the company, ask staff members and really be inquisitive about where they want to work. I don't think we do that enough. I've been in on several interviews here, and it is surprising how young journalists don't take the time to ask questions that could make the difference in the early stages of their careers. It's really an applicant's market at our level. They need to be choosy. Otherwise, they will just feel overworked and underpaid.
"The ironic part is that we all are in this business. The trick is to find the place where you can balance the passion and idealism with really "paying your dues" by cutting your teeth in an environment that helps your career.
"I've found it, and I've been here for 2 1/2 years and counting. I don't have eyes on what's on the outside of the revolving door yet. I'm still learning and growing where I am. To a true young journalist, that simply has to be the focus. Hopefully, there are more of me out there. We aren't all whiners ... at least I hope.
"At any rate, thanks for the article. I really enjoyed reading a well-balanced, relevant piece on journalism at my level. Thanks."
American Journalism Review Vacancies in Vacaville
The embarrassing acquiescence by the White House press corps to the Bush administration's conversion of the First Amendment into a prep school code of conduct continues to draw fire.
Matt Taibi of the New York Press says President Bush's scripted press conference last week was a "mini-Alamo for American journalism." While I don't necessarily agree that all of American journalism should, as Taibi urges, "be herded into a cargo plane, flown to an altitude of 30,000 feet, and pushed out, kicking and screaming, over the North Atlantic," hyperbole in this case serves to make the point.
Tom Wicker, whose journalistic chops are immensely deeper than Taibi's, also rakes the ranks of reporters by accusing them, in an Editor & Publisher column, of presenting Bush's reasons for war to the public "as if they were gospel," and then goes on to articulate which questions the press should be asking. Among them:
"Why was the United States willing to pay such enormous sums to Turkey to win permission to use military bases? Wasn't the Turkish government, in effect, blackmailing Uncle Sam? If so, who's more to be condemned -- the seller or the buyer?" [Read Wicker's entire column]
Even the Canadians are getting in a shot. Antonia Zerbisas opines in the Toronto Star that the "Valium-drip presidential news conference" was covered by a "well-choreographed ballet of sleepwalkers" and reprises earlier comments from Tom Shales, who said Bush set the tone for the event by being "ever so slightly medicated."
As I said yesterday when I commented on the 13 questions: It's time for the press to wake up, drop the lapdog act and become the watchdog it is supposed to be. The public deserves it and the First Amendment demands it.
UPDATE, 3/12/03: In the New York Observer, ABC News White House correspondent Terry Moran says Bush left the press corps "looking like zombies."
UPDATE II, 3/12/03: Robert Fisk tells the San Francisco Bay Guardian that the purpose of journalism is to monitor the centers of power to challenge officialdom. By and large, the media in the United States has totally failed in its obligation to do that. Instead of challenging officialdom, it's become a conduit, a funnel down which officialdom can talk to us."
Tom Wicker Press Isn't Asking Right Questions About Iraq
Toronto Star Bush-league script enraging press
New York Press Cleaning the Pool
New York Observer Bush Eats the Press
San Francisco Bay Guardian Spoon-feeding the press
(I'm returning after a short break during which I died and was resurrected. Four words: Flu shot. Get one).
A byproduct of fever spikes and phlegm-laden lungs is an inability to concentrate on anything of substance, which is how I ended up watching President Bush's news conference last week - and saw the White House press corps perform its imitation of an ineffectual (and metaphorically mixed) hog-tied lapdog.
Bush, who hadn't held a prime-time news conference in 17 months, worked off a script drawn up by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, taking only a question each (no followups) from reporters designated by Fleischer and choosing not to see the raised hands of the scribblers from Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post, among others.
He even ignored 82-year-old Helen Thomas, who for the first time in her four decades covering the White House, received, as the Washington Times put it, her first "presidential snub." No wonder, given her tenacity in trying to draw some blood from the stone-cold Fleischer. [Read this exchange between them]
Worse, though, than the school-room behavior imposed on this supposed elite of American journalism was their obsequious acceptance of the regimen. They didn't resist, insist or persist. Instead they offered a pabulum of predictable questions that Bush easily deflected. It was a no-news conference.
If they had asked even one of the "13 Questions We Wish They'd Asked" posed by Editor & Publisher writer Ari Berman, the public would have been better served. My favorite:
7. Why have you threatened "retribution" against Mexico if it votes against our U.N. resolution? And do you think it is wise to warn that Mexicans could face the same reaction as the "backlash against the French" from our public (as you recently said) when this might be directed at some of the tens of millions of Hispanics living in the U.S.? [Read them all]
Ed Pillola, a columnist for Suburban Chicago Newspapers, has his own question: "So why is it that many of the questions at George Bush's press conference last week were as easy and smooth as custard-filled doughnuts?"
The Washington press "corpse" seems to have stopped breathing. They have become a Greek chorus in a tragedy written by the Bush administration. Unfortunately, the audience is the American public.
USA Today Bush has media walking a fine line
Editor & Publisher 13 Questions We Wish They'd Asked
AlterNet Not All White House Reporters Are Pushovers
Letters to Romenesko (scroll down) Why do WH reporters tolerate scripted sessions?
Despite its disguise as a conservative diatribe against France, an opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal provides a timely reminder that the freedoms of press we enjoy in the United States are not globally universal.
Marc Carnegie, an Agence France-Presse reporter in Paris, points out that the editors of a French weekly (Le Nouvel Observateur) committed a crime when they called George Bush a "little Presbyterian Caligula."
No, the crime was not confusing our president's religion (he's a Methodist), but violating a 122-year-old French law that prohibits public cheekiness toward the French president or other heads of state. Carnegie explains:
"The law has been on the books, with few changes, since 1881; it's the same one Emile Zola defied when he published J'accuse (ed. note: which one law professor calls the 'Greatest Newspaper Article in History') to defend Captain Dreyfus at the end of the 19th century. No one has been arrested for insulting the president here since the 1960s, when a parade spectator was briefly jailed after booing Charles de Gaulle. But the far-reaching code remains on the books, and its pernicious effect has extended well beyond France's borders."
Indeed, the France's restrictive press law has been a model for numerous so-called insult laws that manacle press freedom. According to a World Bank Institute book published in 2002 ("The Right to Tell") on the connections between mass media and economic development, insult laws of one variety or another exist in more than 100 nations and are especially harsh in emerging nations in Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Belarus, for example, a journalist can get up to two years in prison for "insulting a government official in connection with the performance of his duties." France's law is no slouch itself. It law broadly defines an insult as "any insulting expression, term of contempt or invective that does not refer to any fact." (Such as confusing a Presbyterian Caligula with a Methodist Caligula).
Even the French press seems sensitive to criticism (perhaps because it is unaccustomed to levying it). Carnegie mentions the release last week of a book that portrayed the newspaper Le Monde "shocked the chattering classes here and quickly drew vows of legal action." Carnegie continues:
"And yet some of the book's accusations -- for example, that an 'atmosphere of fear' hangs over the newsroom -- might seem rather tame to a seasoned hack in New York or London. One widely reported charge is that bosses at Le Monde pushed the paper to portray France in an excessively negative light. That may sound perverse in the civilized corridors of Paris, but it sounds like a normal day's work in newsrooms elsewhere.
"The result of all this gentility -- enforced by law -- is that French politicians have strong protection from the aggressions of the press. The press code not only forbids insults to top officials; it also criminalizes many of the tools of investigative journalism. 'French legislation on the press is among the most reactionary in Europe,' the international watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres said last year. 'Press freedom is often the French courts' last concern.'"
The World Press Freedom Committee tracks restrictions on the news media and advocates for their repeal. Freedom of the press is a relative concept - and, in too many places on the planet, an unknown one. All the more reason to put ours to good use.
Wall St. Journal Banned in France
World Press Freedom Committee
Insult Laws: An Insult to Press Freedom A 274-page global study by a University of North Carolina professor.
World Bank Institute The Right to Tell
The New York Times reports today that magazine sales are booming in two categories: "blatantly escapist, and loaded with gravitas."
Typifying the former is US Weekly, whose circulation is up 55 percent in the last six months; leading the latter is the Atlantic Monthly (circulation up 52 percent), which last year won the heavyweight division of the gravitas competition by publishing William Langewiesche's 60,000-word "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center."
Newspapers as well as serious magazines can capitalize on the public's thirst for knowledge and understanding in these confusing and dangerous days.
As I said a few weeks ago: "In an age of omni-media, where the incessant bleating of broadcast and Internet pundits, and the reduction of reporting into stacks of scroll bars creates a clamorously poisonous atmosphere that chokes out quality journalism, newspapers have an opportunity to foster a healthier, more vibrant news environment whose deep reporting, evocative writing and enticing photographs give the public's interest in knowing what's going on in their communities a chance to thrive." [Read Journalists Biased? Yes, in the Worst Way]
In a similar vein, the Times quotes Adam Moss, editor of the paper's Sunday magazine:
"Times of change and anxiety make for very interesting journalistic opportunities, and for the most part, writers are rising to the occasion. In the 60's, for instance, it was pretty difficult to publish a bad magazine, and I think the same holds true for this period. Serious magazines are just better than they've been for a while - a hungry market plus better product equals a serious magazine boom."
I like Moss' use of the phrase "rising to the occasion." It indicates responsiveness, in this case to the tolerance, in fact the desire, of readers for longer, deeper forms of journalism.
Of course, as the Times points out, the same public that embraced William Langewiesche also breathlessly awaited Evan Marriott's every embrace. As Cullen Murphy, managing editor of The Atlantic, put it: "It's the venerable bread-and-circus syndrome. The very same conditions that prompt a surge in seriousness also promote an escapist impulse, even in the same people. I spent last Monday editing a serious piece about the Middle East, and then went home and watched `Joe Millionaire.' "
New York Times Readers Are Looking for Mixed Fare