New York Times Editor Gets Religion – Lacks Faith

Last week Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, spoke at forum in London hosted by The Guardian. His remarks covered a lot of territory including journalistic craft, the financial travails of print media, the Internet and blogs, editorial independence, and the influence and manipulation of governments and their representatives. In one passage Keller delivered another apology for the abysmal mishandling of the Times’ coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

“I’ve had a few occasions to write mea culpas for my paper after we let down our readers in more important ways, including for some reporting before the war in Iraq that should have dug deeper and been more sceptical about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction.”

That’s an admission of the obvious. But it doesn’t comport with a comment earlier in the speech wherein Keller confesses that he had not foreseen…

“…the catastrophe that the war in Iraq would become, whereas I – out of a combination of contrarianism and wishful thinking – thought the United States was capable of eliminating a murderous tyrant without making a lethal hash of it.”

That’s an entirely different explanation. He is no longer merely accepting responsibility for shoddy work and misplaced trust in administration flacks. He is now conceding that the paper’s editorial position at the time was that the invasion was warranted and winnable. And what the hell does he mean by contrarianism? To what position was his contrary? Virtually every media outpost was slinging the same administration hash, and even Congress overwhelmingly went along with the fallacies peddled by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, etc. There were pockets of dissent in the populace, but even there the mood for war was palpable. However, that was due, at least in part, to the absence of honest reporting from fully compromised media relics like the Times.

Now take a moment to read this paragraph from Keller’s speech:

“Whatever you think of its policies, the current administration has been more secretive, more mistrustful of an inquisitive press, than any since the Nixon administration. It has treated freedom of information requests with contempt, asserted sweeping claims of executive privilege, even reclassified material that had been declassified. The administration has subsidised propaganda at home and abroad, refined the art of spin, discouraged dissent, and sought to limit traditional congressional oversight and court review. The war in Iraq alone is a case study of the administration’s determination to dominate the flow of information – from the original cherry-picking of intelligence, to the deliberate refusal to hear senior military officers when they warned of the potential for chaos, to the continually inflated claims about the progress in building up an indigenous Iraqi army.”

You have to wonder when Keller arrived at these conclusions. Millions of Americans have known these things for years. We have been fighting to expose this destructive and anti-democratic regime since they stole the election in 2000. We have had little support from the likes of Keller and the New York Times. On the contrary, we have been on the receiving end of endless criticism and ridicule. We have been characterized as everything from partisan to extremist to fringe to unpatriotic, and worse.

Now Keller articulates exactly what we’ve been saying all along. While it’s good to hear, there are a couple of egregious omissions. First of all, he has not retracted any of the disparaging allusions to extremism or treason, and he never acknowledges that those of us who were longstanding dissidents were right from the start. Secondly, he has not altered the editorial stance of his paper one iota in light of the opinions he now asserts above. They are still pushing the administration’s agenda; they still employ the reporters who made all the mistakes for which he is supposedly apologizing; they are committing the same errors with regard to Iran that they made with Iraq by trumpeting BushCo’s warmongering and regurgitating their unsupported allegations.

To top it all off, I think it is interesting that Keller delivered this address to an industry audience in England. Now, I have no problem with his going abroad to deliver this speech. What concerns me is that the link I provided above goes to the site of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Guess who has not covered this speech … That’s right, the New York Times! Even their rivals at the Washington Post published excerpts from the speech (courtesy of Dan Froomkin) and linked to the full text at The Guardian. Doesn’t Keller think that his fellow citizens here in the states deserve to hear what his thoughts are about issues that are critical to his customers and his country? Was there a deliberate decision to shield Americans from views that are critical of the President and his administration? Is this a demonstration of his lack of faith in his people as well as his profession? That’s a question Keller raises himself:

“In the end, I believe the gravest danger to the future of newspapers is not a hostile administration in Washington, not the acid rain of criticism, not a business model upended by new technology, it is a loss of faith, a failure of resolve on the part of the people who make newspapers.”

I tend to agree that faith in the adversarial role of the Fourth Estate has waned as the press finds more companionship with the institutions they should be covering than with the public they were intended to serve. The interests of the corporate media and the corporate-sponsored government are so intertwined that hopes for an independent press corps that checks the abuses of government seems more remote every day. However, in that respect there seems to be no lack of resolve.

If Keller truly believes the things he said last week he needs to bring that message back the the U.S. and let people know about it. He needs to specifically outline the changes he’ll make to the paper to prevent similar failures from occurring in the future. He needs to educate his reporters (and his readers) as to the deceptive practices of this administration and the potential for future administrations for engaging in the same deceptions. If he truly believes that those who hold the reins of power will stoop to manipulate the people and the press, then he needs to make sure that we are less vulnerable to their machinations. At the very least, he must not allow his reporters to be fooled the way that he now admits he was. And if he will not do these simple things, then who knows what he truly believes? And who knows what we can believe if we read it in the Times?

Journalists Say Most Of Iraq Too Dangerous To Visit

While the White House and its legions of RepubliPundits are busily pounding out praise for the newly tranquil environs of Iraq, observers at the scene have a very different tale to tell. The Project for Excellence in Journalism recently completed a survey of war correspondents that describes harrowing circumstances wherein 57% report that at least one of their Iraqi staff had been killed or kidnapped in the last year alone, and that…

“A majority of journalists surveyed say most of the country is too dangerous to visit. Nine out of ten say that about at least half of Baghdad itself. Wherever they go, traveling with armed guards and chase vehicles is the norm for more than seven out of ten surveyed.”

The survey recounts the experiences of seasoned reporters on a dangerous assignment. Many of them are frustrated that they are unable to thoroughly report on the everyday lives of Iraqi civilians because of the risk undertaken to gather information for a story. They cringe at scolding from stateside critics who complain that there aren’t enough “positive” stories about newly painted schoolhouses.

“…when journalists cannot cover a playground being rebuilt because it’s too dangerous to travel around the city, then that playground is not the primary story.”

Amongst the difficulties for reporters is access to sources. The survey reveals that the easiest sources to acquire are Iraqi civilians and foreign diplomats. It’s interesting to note that one of the most guarded groups are private contractors (i.e. Blackwater). Eighty-one percent of reporters say that they are “hard” or “impossible” to reach. That is second only in difficulty to Iraqi insurgents (90%). When enemy combatants and security firms paid for by American tax dollars share the same aversion to press inquiry, you have to wonder about the motives of each of them.

The safety impediments are not the only barriers to effective journalism. The Iraqi authorities are refusing reporters access to the sites of bombings and other violent incidents. That may make for a more uplifting tone from the media, but also one that is less representative of reality. You also need to take into consideration that some in the media are already soft-peddling the horrors of war. Take CNN’s John Roberts who admittted in an interview with Broadcasting and Cable that he is more concerned with not frightening away viewers or stirring up complaints from warmongers than he is about do his job:

“If we showed people the full extent of what we see every day in Iraq, we would either have no one watching us because they couldn’t stand to see the pictures, or we would get so many letters of complaint that some organization would come down on us to stop.”

The survey overall conveys a reality far removed from the emerging Eden of Democracy that the Bush administration is trying peddle. The tribulations of reporters are an important factor to consider when evaluating news items from war zones. If reporters are prevented from posting comprehensive accounts of their experiences because security concerns keep them from relevant scenes and sources, then that is a story in itself. And they shouldn’t have to suffer insults from the homefront studio-potatoes that whine about excessively “negative” coverage.

Voice Of America Silenced In Baghdad

The Baghdad bureau of the Voice of America closed six months ago when it’s last reporter left due to security concerns. Alisha Ryu asked to be transferred after an attack that killed a member of her security detail.

Iraq is the world’s most dangerous country for the media, with 69 fatalities since 2003. The closing of VOA is just the latest example how difficult it is to get reliable news out the country. The VOA could not say when there might be another reporter assigned to Baghdad but Ryu was quoted as saying that there were no volunteers.

Ryu has published stories detailing occurances of abuse and torture by Shiite militias in conjunction with Interior Ministry prison authorities. These reports may have targeted her for retribution.

While the VOA ostensibly operates independently, it is an arm of the U. S. government and is required by its charter to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.” If they can’t keep the mood upbeat, I don’t see why any other news organization (other than Fox) can be expected to do so.

The Bush administration is fond of complaining that the media is ignoring all the positive stories in Iraq. It must be hard to ferret out all those postitive stories when you can’t even leave your hotel without getting kidnapped or shot at or killed. Jill Carroll, Bob Woodruff, and 69 disembodied souls can attest to that. If the environment is so dangerous that field reporters, an uncommonly sturdy bunch, can’t be recruited, it puts the lie to the administration’s lament that there is an abundance of good news that is just being missed.

Judith Miller’s “Conscience in Media” Award Revoked

According to Editors and Publishers:

The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) has voted unanimously to reverse an earlier decision to give its annual Conscience in Media award to jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

The ASJA’s First Amendment committee voted to honor Miller, but that decision was reversed by the full board. Thank heaven the board was not afflicted with whatever disease had stricken the committee. Anita Bartholomew, a member of the committee exhibiting a rare measure of immunity said:

“The First Amendment is designed to prevent government interference with a free press. Miller, by shielding a government official or officials who attempted to use the press to retaliate against a whistleblower, and scare off other would-be whistleblowers, has allied herself with government interference with, and censorship of, whistleblowers.

She subsequently resigned her post in protest. Her statement above, and her actions since present a superb example of the kind of courage and ethics that is so desperately needed in mainstream journalism. If the ‘Conscience in Media’ Award has not been given to someone else, I would like to nominate Ms. Bartholomew. She deserves our appreciation and respect. Feel free to throw some her way.