Media Convergence

Friday, December 01, 2006

Journalism Selections #9


Nicholas D. Kristof was named Print Journalist of the Year by Media Web. I didn't think much of this until I got to the jump in the article, where they discussed Kristof's controversial decision to purchase two young girls from a Cambodian brothel (for what amounts to US$600) and escort them back to their home villages. After that it was impossible not to think of something an ethics professor of mine once brought up in class, about a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who took a photo of a starving Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture. She said that he walked away and left her there because he thought that was the ethical thing to do as a journalist, although I did a bit more reading on the topic and found out that that wasn't quite so. (He had chased off the vulture and said he saw the little girl make it to the feeding tent. A year later, he committed suicide.) Nonetheless, the discussion we had after she brought it up is pretty much seared in my mind.

The teaser after the article cites a letter from a reader, who says that she respects and admires Bob Woodward because, after reading his reporting, she had no idea what his political leanings were.

Taken together, I'm left with two thoughts:

  • I find it extremely difficult to believe that choosing to help someone when the opportunity is presented can ever be unethical. While I understand that a journalist's job is to first and foremost spread truth (and that spreading the truth is the most powerful thing a person can do), I know that I, personally, would find it impossible to walk away from a situation where I knew that the money in my pocket could buy freedom from sex slavery for another human being.
  • It's a sad day when an act as simple as helping to lift another human being out of misery and sorrow can be seen as exhibiting "political leanings".

On second thought, I'm not sure that I feel terribly comfortable with those assertions. Last semester I watched a documentary on photojournalist Jim Nachtwey, who has captured some of the most upsetting things I've ever seen. From what I could tell, Nachtwey was respectful to his subjects, often giving them a little something to help them out, but he never did acted in what I would call a "life-saving manner". But maybe he didn't have to. It seemed to me that his subjects knew that the most he could ever do for them is to tell their story with fairness and accuracy.

I suppose it is moral conflicts like these that makes coverage of incidents like this such a minefield for anyone who tries to think about it. I guess the only statement I can make with any certainty is that no one from our cushy society who has not experienced such things is in any place to offer moral judgement.

(I found this website while writing this part of my blog entry, and I found it extremely thought-provoking, especially with regards to the way images (such as the one with the starving and stalked Sudanese girl) can have the effect of removing the incident from its wider political context, which ultimately serves no one.)



Eric Alterman posted a link to this essay by historian Diane McWhorter that put much of the responsibility for the increasing violence occuring in the name of fighting the War on Terror at the feet of the American public and the media. She makes the case that Nazi Germany's strength was derived from the voluntary support of the majority of the country, not the threat of force from an armed and bloodthirsty elite. She goes on to discuss the self-censoring that takes place in this country with regards to using Nazi Germany as a benchmark for discussion about modern politics:

For some reason, I keep thinking about an observation Eleanor Roosevelt made in an unpublished interview conducted in May of 1940, as the German Wehrmacht swept across France. She expressed dismay that a "great many Americans" would look with favor on a Hitler victory in Europe and be greatly attracted to fascism. Why? "Simply because we are a people who tend to admire things that work," she said. So, were the voters last month protesting Bush's policies—or were they complaining that he had not made those policies work? If Operation Iraqi Freedom had not been such an unqualified catastrophe, how long would the public have assented to the programs that accompanied the "war on terror": the legalization of torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, the unauthorized surveillance of law-abiding Americans, the unilateral exercise of executive power, and the Bush team's avowed prerogative to "create our own reality"?

Mrs. Roosevelt's example notwithstanding, polite discussion of that question does not contain any derivative of the words fascism, propaganda, or dictatorship. God forbid Nazi or Hitler. The extent to which it is verboten to bring up Nazi Germany has now become a jape. "Can't pols just have little Post-its on their microphones reminding them not to compare anything to the Nazis?" Maureen Dowd wrote in the Times recently, after yet another off-message senator was taken to the woodshed. The ban applies equally to the arena of intellectual debate, such that even the wild and woolly Internet has a Godwin's Law to describe the cred-killing effect of dropping the N-bomb. So, even though it is a truism that we learn by analogy, even though the Bush administration unapologetically practices the reality-eschewing art of propaganda—with procured "journalists," its own "news" pipeline at Fox, leader-centric ("war president") stagecraft, the classic Big Lie MO of, say, draft avoiders smearing war heroes as unpatriotic—we are not permitted to draw any comparisons to the über-propagandists of the previous century.

Considering the enthusiasm with which I've heard many of my fellow citizens support the idea of torturing other human beings in the name of fighting "terror" (an oxymoronic idea if I ever heard one), and considering the way I've seen major news stories swept under the carpet by the mainstream media, I can't say her arguments didn't strike a chord with me. On the contrary, I think she's right on.



This new venture by former WaPo political reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei has been roundly thumped by media critics as a lame idea, and Jay Rosen is no exception. Harris and VandeHei say that they're trying "to pull back the curtain on political stories and narrow the gap between reporters and their audience." Rosen says, Um, isn't that what you are supposed to be doing?

A commenter on Rosen's blog asks why anyone would want to tour the sausage factory, meaning the process through which news is produced. I have to agree. Even though I've reported on and written a grand total of seven stories, I find the process to be very messy, especially in comparison to the polished product that should be the end result.

Rosen also says that he really doesn't think that "middle of the road" journalism is what the public wants anymore. I tend to agree. I'm really tired, for instance, of reading a news article on global warming that gives equal weight to two opposing view, when 98% of the scientific community agrees that one of those views is the correct view. To me, that is like writing an article on the planet Earth, and dedicating equal space to the Flat Earth Society. "Middle of the road" journalism is, to me, a cop-out taken by those who find the truth to be a little too uncomfortable for their liking.


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