War and Terror

The dangers and challenges to journalists who report on the war in Iraq have been amply demonstrated in threats to their safety, difficulties of establishing and maintaining trust with Iraqi sources, and restraints put on newsgathering by available newsroom resources. In trying to learn more about who the Iraqis are who constitute the resistance forces and why they are fighting, Patrick Graham, a freelance journalist who wrote “Beyond Fallujah: A Year With the Iraqi Resistance” for Harper’s, encountered all of these dangers and difficulties. But he emerged with an article that offered a different perspective on the fighters and the support they have within their regions than the usual characterizations provided by military sources and conveyed in many news stories. In addressing why this matters, he writes, “Had the U.S. media demanded the army show more evidence of the ‘foreign fighters’ in Ramadi and Fallujah and forced them to account for their words … that the ‘terrorists and insurgents’ were unpopular, then the U.S. Army might have had to deal with what was really happening there … and if this had happened, perhaps fewer Iraqis might have joined the resistance as a reaction to the U.S. Army tactics.”

Washington Post national correspondent Anne Hull teamed up with Post reporter Tamara Jones to suggest to military officials a homeland version of embedded war reporting. “Our loose idea was ‘St. Elsewhere’ in wartime,” Hull writes. The reporting team asked for—and received—permission from the U.S. Army to place themselves within the daily routines of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where wounded troops returning from Iraq were being treated. In their two-day narrative series, the reporters focused on the experiences of three soldiers on Ward 57. In writing about children whose parents are serving in Iraq, Barbara Walsh, a projects writer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, spent many hours talking with the youngsters about how the absence of mommy or daddy is affecting their lives. Many of the newspaper’s readers, she says, “hadn’t considered how the war would tear up families.” Journalism professor Dale Maharidge shares what he learned on his journey across the United States in the wake of 9/11 and published in the book, “Homeland,” along with photographs taken by Michael Williamson, and speaks to the need for journalists to “document the fear and anger that is driving our nationalism.”

Former investigative reporter Stephen Berry, who now teaches journalism, describes what happened when Pentagon officials persuaded CBS News’s “60 Minutes II” program to twice delay broadcasting its breaking news story about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. Berry contends that “such newsroom practices … influence how other news outlets might respond to similar pressures by demonstrating how they dealt with government efforts to manage the news process.” Charles Zewe, a former correspondent and anchor for CNN, places the Bush administration’s creation of a 24-hour news show as “the megaphone for the Pentagon” in the context of past efforts by war-time governments to control the news. Zewe refers to The Pentagon Channel’s content as “infoganda, a fusion of information and propaganda.” Zewe says this is among “the latest twists in the Bush administration’s ongoing efforts to shape public opinion by going around traditional news outlets with positive stories about its policy initiatives.” Rose Economou, former producer for CBS News and a journalism professor, finds that two popular documentary films— ”Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Control Room”—raise questions journalists should ponder. The films illustrate, too, that what separates documentary filmmakers from journalists is their “powerful, purposeful and persuasive use of emotion ….” Bob Davis, editorial page editor of The Anniston (Alabama) Star, writes about his paper’s response when the consortium that provides its prepackaged Sunday color comics eliminated Doonesbury. The Star’s publisher called the decision “censorship by plebiscite,” after consortium members were polled and voted 21-15 in favor of dropping it. As Davis writes, “A newspaper that only gives its readers what they say they want is not serving its highest calling.”

Secrecy

The ability to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is essential to the watchdog role that journalists play. According to Pete Weitzel, former managing editor for The Miami Herald who is now freedom of information coordinator for the newly formed Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, in this era of greater government secrecy more barricades—regulatory and procedural—have been erected that stymie or prevent access to government records by journalists. Not only has news reporting on this issue been “limited and tepid,” according to Weitzel, but “there has been no coordinated information gathering or strategic planning about secrecy and reporters’ access to information within the journalism community or among its organizations.”

Seth Rosenfeld, an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, describes his two-decade fight, involving three lawsuits filed under the FOIA that were resolved just short of a Supreme Court hearing, to secure FBI files about information the agency had compiled about those who were involved with protest activities at the University of California at Berkeley during the 1950’s and 1960’s. By sharing problems he encountered—and describing the methods he used to push ahead with his requests—Rosenfeld lets us know that his “experience demonstrates that FOIA requests are most likely to succeed when they grow out of and are informed by regular reporting.”

York Daily Record/Sunday News reporters are encouraged by editors to make wise and frequent use of FOIA requests to supplement their investigative work. Each one, writes Rob Walters, the paper’s business editor, computer-assisted reporting editor, and investigative projects editor, “is a lesson in how the process works and how to use the act successfully.” In the paper’s coverage of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s delayed notification about the threat of a terrorist attack on nearby Three Mile Island’s Unit 1 (nuclear) reactor and the county’s grand jury investigation of the York’s 1969 racial riots and murders, Walters explains how reporters used FOIA requests to bring previously withheld information and records to readers’ attention. An accompanying box offers a range of tips about how journalists can most effectively make FOIA filings.

 

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