PROFILES IN MEDIA COURAGE

By Norman Solomon

"In early October, as the U.S. government geared up for extensive
bombing of Afghanistan, efforts increased to pressure media outlets --
abroad and at home. Colin Powell urged the Emir of Qatar to lean on the
Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV network. Days later, Condoleezza
Rice asked American TV networks to, in effect, censor tapes of messages
from Al Qaeda leaders.
"  

"The
styles and methods vary considerably, but effective media control is an
ardent desire of self-proclaimed democrats, steely autocrats and
religious fanatics alike.
"

"Eagerness for a tidy and comfortable 'story line' sometimes causes
journalists to get carried away with their own preferences for facile
narrative plots. Meanwhile, a sad and ironic counterpoint to the courage
of reporters in strife-torn regions overseas is their habitual
unwillingness to buck management after they get back home.
"

     The Committee to Protect Journalists released a bleak report the
other day. "Attacks on the Press in 2001" is a thick document with
details about media suppression in much of the world. While American
readers may feel very fortunate, they have no good reason to be smug.

     Last year, the report says, 37 journalists were killed because of
their work. Many more were jailed or physically attacked. In some
countries the jeopardy is primarily legal; elsewhere the main dangers
are assault and murder. But -- one way or another -- journalistic
pursuit of truth can bring grim consequences.

     Worldwide, the picture is largely dismal. But also inspiring.
Despite serious and ever-present hazards in numerous countries, a lot of
journalists keep setting aside fear to do their jobs with integrity.

     Meanwhile, anyone who assumes that the USA is setting a great
example should reconsider. The Committee to Protect Journalists points
out that some ominous steps began as last autumn got underway. "The U.S. State Department contacted the Voice of America, a broadcast
organization funded by the federal government, and expressed concern
about the radio broadcast of an exclusive interview with Taliban leader
Mullah Mohammed Omar." Later on, VOA head Robert Reilly "distributed a
memo barring interviews with officials from 'nations that sponsor
terrorism.'"

     In early October, as the U.S. government geared up for extensive
bombing of Afghanistan, efforts increased to pressure media outlets --
abroad and at home. Colin Powell urged the Emir of Qatar to lean on the
Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV network. Days later, Condoleezza
Rice asked American TV networks to, in effect, censor tapes of messages
from Al Qaeda leaders. As longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas
noted in a column: "To most people, a 'request' to the television
networks from the White House in wartime carries with it the weight of a
government command. The major networks obviously saw it that way."

     What was the global impact of such measures? The Committee to
Protect Journalists, a careful mainstream group based in New York, has
included this assessment in its new report: "The actions taken by the
Bush administration seemed to embolden repressive governments around the world to crack down on their own domestic media. In Russia, a
presidential adviser said President Vladimir Putin planned to study U.S.
limitations on reporting about terrorists in order to develop rules for
Russian media."

     Actually, Uncle Sam is quite a role model for how avowedly
democratic nations can serve rather explosive notice on specific news
outlets. The Pentagon implemented a devastating Nov. 13 missile attack
on the Al-Jazeera bureau in Kabul. Months later, the Committee to
Protect Journalists seems skeptical of the official explanations. "The
U.S. military described the building as a 'known' Al Qaeda facility
without providing any evidence," the report says. "Despite the fact that
the facility had housed the Al-Jazeera office for nearly two years and
had several satellite dishes mounted on its roof, the U.S. military
claimed it had no indications the building was used as Al-Jazeera's
Kabul bureau."

     That's one of many ways for governments to "dispatch" news. The
styles and methods vary considerably, but effective media control is an
ardent desire of self-proclaimed democrats, steely autocrats and
religious fanatics alike.

     A reading of "Attacks on the Press in 2001" should disrupt
complacency here in the United States. Referring to a case that put a
Houston-based journalist behind bars for 168 days, the report comments:
"The United States jailed free-lance writer Vanessa Leggett on
contempt-of-court charges, joining Cuba as the only other country in the
Western Hemisphere to imprison journalists for their work."

     The slaying of independent-minded journalists is often part of a
far broader pattern. In Colombia, several journalists died as a result
of doing their jobs in 2001. During that year, in the same country, 129
trade unionists were assassinated because they dared to struggle for
basic labor rights.

     While a focus on the well-being of journalists is appropriate, it
shouldn't become such a fixation that it crowds out the much larger
panoramas of suffering. At times, American journalists are preoccupied
with the outlooks of their colleagues to the point of absurdity.

     Consider this paragraph from a March 27 piece by Washington Post
media writer Howard Kurtz that appeared on the Post's website:
"Journalists are growing weary and depressed by all the Middle East
violence -- suicide bombers in Jerusalem one day, Israeli soldiers
killing West Bank people the next -- and the sheer level of killing has
blurred any possible story line. Cease-fire attempts are routinely
violated within hours."

     Eagerness for a tidy and comfortable "story line" sometimes causes
journalists to get carried away with their own preferences for facile
narrative plots. Meanwhile, a sad and ironic counterpoint to the courage
of reporters in strife-torn regions overseas is their habitual
unwillingness to buck management after they get back home.

     Many reporters are brave about taking their chances in war zones.
But in newsrooms -- when it comes to challenging the prevalent budget
priorities, the insidious creep of commercial values and the top editors
inclined to spin coverage in sync with powerful interests along
Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street -- few American journalists have
been willing to put up much of a fight.

 

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be.  His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers.  If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." 

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