Among the casualties of the invasion and occupation of Iraq have been truth and trust, according to Sig Christenson, military affairs writer for the San Antonio Express-News. After working as both an embedded and independent reporter in Iraq, he writes about the “propaganda war within Gulf War II,” explaining that “Its roots are in Ground Zero, and I have been a willing participant. So, too, were many other reporters.” As president of the Military Reporters & Editors association, Christenson monitors the increase in improper restrictions placed on journalists’ ability to report on the military. A letter of protest, sent to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, accompanies his article.
Frank Greve, assistant national editor in the Knight Ridder Newspapers Washington, D.C. bureau, tracks the rise in the number of public relations officials working for the government, examines the impact of their advocacy efforts on news reporting, and alerts us to some media movements appearing on “the propaganda front.” His conclusion: They do “not bode well for journalism.” In an excerpt from a chapter he wrote for “The Press” (Institutions of American Democracy Series), National Public Radio Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr examines the longstanding tension between the press and government that he finds now exacerbated by a secrecy classification “activated more by fear of personal embarrassment than by a threat to national security.” In defending objectivity as a worthy journalistic standard against threats it faces from journalists who reject its applicability, Stephen J. Berry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who teaches investigative journalism at the University of Iowa, argues that it is “precisely because we understand our [human] frailties, we insist upon maintaining the pursuit of objectivity.”
Former long-time Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz criticizes the unwillingness of journalists to reveal corporate funding sources behind “think tanks” whose experts they quote on policy issues. He cites the case of ExxonMobil’s financial backing of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and shows how reporters often quote CEI “flacks” on topics such as global warming without informing readers of this industry connection. “The success of a propaganda campaign such as ExxonMobil’s depends heavily, of course, on the cooperation—or complicity— of news organizations,” Mintz writes. Journalists’ complicity in “Spin Alley” remaining as the primary site for after-debate political reporting is the subject of Web blogger Lisa Stone’s article. Stone sets forth an “undeniable truth” in observing that Spin Alley’s success depends on journalists being “willing to disseminate spin.” She looks, with a modicum of hope, to the actions by some newspaper reporters and bloggers who either boycott these post-debate events or add or substitute genuine fact-checking and analysis of the candidates’ claims.
The (Baltimore) Sun’s editor, Timothy A. Franklin, describes his newspaper’s ongoing legal case with Maryland’s Governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr. about whether a government official has the right to prohibit a reporter’s access to public officials, as a response to receiving unfavorable coverage. The Sun argues that “its two banished journalists have less access to government than a private citizen.” He also explores implications this case holds. In Youngstown, Ohio, The Business Journal’s editor and publisher, Andrea Wood, faces a similar situation and legal case. After scrutiny by The Business Journal, the mayor “banned city employees from speaking with any of our reporters,” Woods writes.
Walter Pincus, a national security reporter for The Washington Post who has been a subject of a prosecutorial probe into information leaked to the press about CIA operative Valerie Plame, describes how he and his newspaper reach decisions about publishing information from a confidential source. Dan Olmsted, senior editor in UPI’s Washington bureau, worries that at a time when more aggressive “snooping” by the press is needed, the combination of diminished public support for the press and the threat of jail time for reporters involved with government leaks, is leading to “a return to the 1950’s style of reporting … that might politely be called ‘stenographic.’” Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, writes about the importance of protecting reporters who protect sources, and she explains why “in the past, failure [among journalists] to agree upon a federal shield law strategy has doomed any effort to create a statutory privilege.” And in excerpts from a recent Nieman Foundation reunion panel discussion, Karen Stephenson, a Harvard scholar in the field of trust, shares insights about various dimensions of trust that involve news organizations.
“The Seduction of Secrecy: Toward Better Access to Government Information on the Record” was organized by Geneva Overholser, professor of public affairs reporting in the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington bureau, as a symposium to discuss reasons for the use and abuse of anonymous-source reporting and the rise in government secrecy and how journalists might respond to these trends. We are publishing a series of excerpts from this discussion. In a time of media consolidation and public ownership, with a focus on maximizing profits, University of Iowa law professor Randall P. Bezanson and emeritus professor of journalism Gilbert Cranberg explain why they believe that a new concept of “institutional malice” should be applied in libel cases, thus creating a different standard of liability for news organizations.
As public confidence in the press wanes, the Pew Research Center’s associate director, Carroll Doherty, shares findings that after 9/11 “Americans have become considerably less supportive of the press’s watchdog function in security matters.” University of Connecticut professor Ken Dautrich and Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation Vice President John Bare ponder what it means (and what can be done) when nearly half of U.S. high school students surveyed “entertain the idea of newspaper censorship” by government. University of Missouri journalism professor George Kennedy reports on the complex coupling of findings about public attitudes—combining respect for and skepticism of the press—from a study he conducted. Journalism professors Lee Wilkins and Renita Coleman report on results of testing journalists’ ethical decision-making that appear in their book, “The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason about Ethics.”
In his business travels throughout the world, Ron Javers, assistant managing editor of Newsweek International, encounters wide disparity in how journalism is practiced. In struggling to understand and report on their times, Javers writes, journalists “cannot escape being part of their times.” In the United States, Javers worries about a press agenda that “sometimes seems in real danger of becoming one gigantic special advertising section.” During one of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s buyouts, Huntly Collins left her longtime job as a reporter. She now reports on her four years and three jobs “on the other side” and shares her realization—and appreciation—of “just how special is the role of journalist in a free society.”