What do Jay Rosen’s public journalism, Edward Murrow, Michael Yon, and John Galloway have in common? How do they help me understand why it is that U.S. and U.K. media are so uncomfortable with the idea of printing the cartoons?
Because they focus our attention on the notion of journalists as citizens.
Watching the U.S. and U.K. media twist themselves into ever-tightening logical circles as they explained why they wouldn’t reprint the Danish cartoons – which would have, rightly, been interpreted as thumbing their noses at the Islamists who stirred the controversy – I’m struck by a simple notion.
As Americans, or as citizens of the U.K., defiance is an appropriate response. You don’t like cartoons of your prophet? Too bad. Hell, we dip ours in piss and sell the photos.
But the media world is somehow above that unseemly response; their goal is to be even-handed parents, balancing the claims of both outraged children, and maintaining their stance as rapporteur, not participant.
It wasn’t always so.
I noted the L.A. Times article on Michael Yon, and the author’s (and, to be honest, most of the audience’s) distaste for Yon’s not-well-considered actions in picking up a rifle and attempting to get involved in a firefight. What journalist would do anything like that?
What journalist would have, as the writer put it,
…ignored the barriers that traditionally separated the press from its subjects. He openly rooted for soldiers and helped them collect the wreckage after roadside bombings.
Well, let me give two examples.
After midnight in London, Morgenthau gave an address on CBS Radio to the American people, which Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert Sherwood and the CBS London correspondent Edward R. Murrow helped to write. He told his audience that while touring the fallout [sic] shelters, the “principal thought that filled my mind and heart” had been “we must never forget!” It was not enough to hope that postwar Germans and Japanese would “behave themselves as decent people”: “Hoping is not good enough…Germany and Japan must be kept disarmed.”
I’ve cited this before ; but let me bring it up again…Edward R Murrow, the demigod of a courageous press, acting as a flack for a U.S. Government official – worse, actively writing a speech for him. And it certainly doesn’t read like a nuanced one.
Go over and read Joseph Galloway’s memoirs of his experiences in Vietnam – they’re interesting reading in general (he’s an interesting guy – he co-authored ‘We Were Soldiers Once, And Young’).
But he had an idea: We would stay the night at the MACV Adviser compound nearby and get a much earlier start than those day-trippers the next morning. Sounded like a plan. At the gate of the compound a very tired looking American captain greeted us warmly. “We have been on 100% alert here for the last five days and nights. We are exhausted and need some relief. You guys are it.” He hooked me up with Saigon on his old-fashioned telephone switchboard. I was yelling down a bad line to Herndon in Saigon, telling him what we had seen that afternoon, when enemy mortar rounds fell on the South Vietnamese compound next door. I ducked under the switchboard and kept talking. Afterward, the captain handed us an M2 greasegun submachine gun and a handful of magazines. He showed us where we would sleep, in an empty bunkroom full of double-decker bunks. And where we would stand guard, in a sandbagged bunker facing a barbed-wire fence with a road beyond that. Henri would stand guard alone, from Midnight to 3 a.m. My turn was 3 a.m. to daybreak.
I lay there in the dark unable to sleep till Henri shook my arm and gestured at the door. I took the gun and ammo and entered the bunker for the longest night of my life to that point. Midway through my tour the Viet Cong pulled a satchel charge attack on the South Vietnamese compound across the road. No one approached our fence. Finally the eastern sky began to brighten slightly. The night was nearly over. Thank God. Just then a Vietnamese on a bicycle with a huge bundle on the handlebars came into view, pedaling up that road. I leveled the gun, safety off, and told myself if he made one false move he was dead. About then the captain slapped me on the shoulder: “Son, if you shoot that man you are going to have to cook our breakfast. He’s the chef.” Whew.
How’s that for your first day at war?
The Cav also brought along with them their hometown reporter, a grizzled and, to we 20-somethings, ancient World War II veteran Marine named Charlie Black of The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer. We would all go to school on Charlie Black who lived with the Cav 24/7 and loved what he was doing. Charlie would go out with a battalion on operations and stay for a week or ten days or two weeks. When he came back to An Khe he would sit down at a battered old typewriter and write endless dispatches, single spaced, on onion skin paper. His stories were full of names and hometowns. He would find a friendly GI who would frank the letter so it went home airmail for free. His editor would run every line, because his readers included the wives and kids of many of the troops. Charlie was supposed to stay two or three weeks; he ended up staying more than a year that tour. Traded in his return air ticket for pocket money, slept on the ground or in the press tent for free and ate a steady diet of C-rations, also for free. The Cav troops would have happily passed the hat for donations if Charlie had gone totally broke. They loved him, and the love affair was mutual.
Ray dropped the Huey in rather precipitously to avoid the machine guns. I bailed out, the camp defenders flung some wounded aboard, and Ray was gone, shooting me the bird through the plexiglass. A sergeant ran up and said, “I don’t know who you are, Sir, but Maj. Beckwith wants to see you right now.” I inquired as to which one was the good major. “He is that big guy over there jumping up and down on his hat,” the sergeant replied. In short order I was standing before a man who would become a legend in Special Operations Warfare as the founder of the Delta Forces anti-terrorist teams. The dialogue went something like this: Him: Who the hell are you? Me: A reporter, Sir. Him: I need everything in the goddam world; I need reinforcements; I need medical evacuation helicopters; I need ammunition; I need food; I would love a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey and some cigars. And what has the Army in its wisdom sent me? A reporter. Well, son, I got news for you. I have no vacancy for a reporter but I do have one for a corner machine gunner—and YOU ARE IT! Me: Yes, Sir.
Beckwith took me to a sandbagged corner of a trench and gave me a short lesson in the care and loading and firing f the .30 caliber air-cooled machine gun which sat there, dark, ugly and menacing. He showed me how to unjam it in case of need. How to arm it. His instructions then were simple and direct: You can shoot the little brown men outside the wire; they are the enemy. You may not shoot the little brown men inside the wire; they are mine. For the next two or three days and nights I lived in that corner of the trench, beside the gun. What sleep there was was caught in lulls during the day. One day the Air Force finally managed to air-drop supplies in the right place; in fact right on top of the right place. Huge pallets of crates of ammo and c-rations drifted right down onto the camp, demolishing at least one tin-roofed building and smashing other defensive emplacements. I reached out and grabbed a Newsweek reporter, Bill Cook, and yanked him into my trench right before he was about to be squished by a descending pallet. The snaps of the parachutes billowing all over the camp were pretty good, even if I say so myself.
Finally a South Vietnamese armored column arrived to the rescue. Bob Poos of AP and another old friend, Jack Laurence of CBS, were riding atop the Armored Personnel Carriers. I waved at Poos and asked him where the hell he had been. He gave me the one-finger salute. The North Vietnamese had left by then and the hills were silent for the first time in a week. The air stank with that never-to-be-forgotten smell of rotting human flesh. The hills were ripped apart by the airstrikes brought down on the machine gunners, a stark, shattered landscape. We spent one more night in the camp. Poos was assigned to my machine gun.
Not the AP of this war, I’d suggest.
If there was a turning point, James Fallows covered it, in talking about a 1987 roundtable on ethics with journalists, academics, and the military:
Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening’s panel, better known than William Westmoreland himself. These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace of 6o Minutes and CBS. Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading, the North Kosanese had agreed to let Jennings and his news crew into their country, to film behind the lines and even travel with military units. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, Jennings replied. Any reporter would-and in real wars reporters from his network often had. But while Jennings and his crew are traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by American and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly cross the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst, the northern soldiers set up a perfect ambush, which will let them gun down the Americans and Southerners, every one. What does Jennings do? Ogletree asks. Would he tell his cameramen to “Roll tape!” as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to ambush the Americans? Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t,” he finally said. “I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” Even if it means losing the story? Ogletree asked.
Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. “But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That’s purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction.” Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. “I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” he said, obviously referring to himself. “They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover.” “I am astonished, really,” at Jennings’s answer, Wallace said moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: “You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American”-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.” Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn’t Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!” Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said. “I chickened out.” Jennings said that he had gotten so wrapped up in the hypothetical questions that he had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached. As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, everyone else in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror. Retired Air Force general Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford’s national security advisor and would soon serve in the same job for George Bush, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. “What’s it worth?” he asked Wallace bitterly. “It’s worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon.” Ogletree turned to Wallace. What about that? Shouldn’t the reporter have said something? Wallace gave his most disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms wide in a “Don’t ask me!” gesture, and said, “I don’t know.” He was mugging to the crowd in such a way that he got a big laugh-the first such moment of the discussion. Wallace paused to enjoy the crowd’s reaction. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given. “I wish I had made another decision,” Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the last five minutes over again. “I would like to have made his decision”-that is, Wallace’s decision to keep on filming. A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform, jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell looked at the TV stars and said, “I feel utter . . . contempt. ” Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces–and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. The instant that happened he said, they wouldn’t be “just journalists” any more. Then they would drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield. “We’ll do it!” Connell said. “And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get … a couple of journalists.” The last few words dripped with disgust.
What answer would John Galloway or Edward R. Murrow given?
The issue, simply, is that members of the media feel they must put their citizenship aside – or possibly tie to a broader flag – in order to do their jobs.
That has an impact in the coverage we see in Iraq, and it also has an impact in the coverage we see here at home.
Jay Rosen, who (as far as I know) coined the term ‘public journalism’ to describe the notion that news media – newspapers and television stations – had obligations as institutions and citizens of communities to do more than simply report, but to engage and participate.
I think that’s a good thing. I think that the media should be citizens.
I’m not unaware that this pulls the rug out from under many claims – including my own – that media ‘bias’ is damaging the media and out communities; I’m going to need some time to work out a response to that.
But a media that’s struggling to stand impartial between the claims of theocrats and those of freedom is a media that isn’t embracing any concept of citizenship I know.
Journalism is struggling with this issue:
As the Columbus experiment became known within the newspaper industry, a variety of other suspicions were raised. During a panel discussion at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference of 1992, Howard Schneider, managing editor at Newsday, spoke out. “I think what Columbus did was bad,” Schneider said. “I think the potential for mischief is great. I do not mean only that they had to report on what their editor was doing, but [also] buying into the idea that they are now a part of the community, and the community’s agenda is the newspaper’s agenda, and suddenly we have to make the community feel good. This may be a temptation to sugarcoat some of the realities of the city.”
This kind of criticism would flare repeatedly in the years ahead as others in the news business decided to “leap across the chasm that normally separates journalism from community,” as Swift put it, while many of their colleagues learned of these leaps and drew back in disgust. “Getting involved” became one of the flashpoints for the controversy that surrounded public journalism when it surfaced as a movement after 1993.
In not publishing the cartoons, it seems to me that the media are stepping back from “Getting involved” here again.
And that’s too bad.
[Update: Through sheer coincidence, American Thinker links to an article in Accuracy In Media on exactly this point:
She adds, “It’s OK for them to spill the beans about everything the White House does, but Heaven forbid they should tell the Bush Administration where some of the terrorists are or that they’re having tea and a casual chat” Come on. Now who’s bordering on treason? Al-Jazeera [is our friend] compared to what our own media will do to the United States with our backs turned. It’s a travesty. They should be charged with treason when they do these types of stories and don’t report their sources to the proper officials.”
The December 27 report in question about ‘Commander Ismail’ was narrated by Myers, who said that “In his first interviews with Western media, Ismail brags about killing three Navy Seals this summer, then downing a Chinook helicopter that came to rescue them, killing another 16 Americans.” Myers explained, “NBC News interviewed Ismail in August and again this month. Both times, the Taliban made sure we could not provide their location to the U.S. military.”