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Business Wrong Model for Journalism
Goal of journalism should be to speak to citizens
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-17 12:42 (KST)   
Four professional journalists appeared at Columbia University in New York in a panel on "Reporting War".(1) Charles Glass, an American journalist, set the tone for the panel by describing the destruction of journalism in the U.S. by the business culture it is embedded in. Other invited speakers on the panel were the American journalist, Seymour Hersh, British journalist Robert Fisk, and John Pilger, an Australian filmmaker and journalist writing for British and other publications.

Glass entered the journalist profession 35 years ago, viewing it as "a higher calling." His goal was "to tell the truth." While he commended the other journalists sharing the panel with him as exceptions, he maintained that this ideal has been debased in American journalistic practice. The professional ethic of the journalist has become the victim of a business culture. He explained, "We are all content or service providers to customers.... Our moral obligation to tell the truth is too often over-riden by the commercial concerns to do what the employer wants."

©2006 Jenny W.
He gave examples of stories that were withheld from publication by editors. One such story he wrote during his reporting in Lebanon during the 1975-1980 period was about boys in a fishing boat that was sunk by the Israeli military. The boys swam to shore as the Israeli military watched. This story showed in simple terms the actions of Israel in Lebanon. His newspaper at the time, the Chicago Daily News, was a good newspaper, but when he submitted the story, he was told there was no room to print it that day. The following day and afterwards he was similarly told there was no room for the story.

He described a similar situation when he reported that Israeli soldiers in civilian clothes were hijacking autos from civilians for assassination missions against dissidents in the resistance. He had film footage and also eyewitness accounts. The network, ABC, told him there was no time to air the story that night, nor the next night, or afterwards. It never appeared.

Such experiences led him to the conclusion that the U.S. media was unable to tell what is happening. This means that the American public can't know what is happening, for example in Iraq, by reading U.S. press reports. Maybe accurate stories could be published in the London Review of Books or in the Independent in England, but they would not be published in the U.S. press, Glass concluded.

Glass said that he had lost his vocation. His advice to anyone considering becoming a journalist with the U.S. media was, "Don't do it."

During the question period he was asked whether there was a way to "market the truth" using the business model of journalism. Glass responded, "No." The business culture couldn't be adapted to promote the truth. He argued that the business model is the wrong model for journalism. The goal of journalism isn't to reach consumers or customers. The goal of the journalist is to speak to citizens.

Robert Fisk was the next to speak. He described how his newspaper, the Independent in England, considered itself the "viewspaper." It didn't pretend to objectivity in its stories but was keen to print the insights of its journalists as part of their stories. Fisk described having dinner with American journalists and having interesting conversations. But when the journalists wrote their articles he found they didn't write what they had seen and heard, but what they thought some academic would want to hear. He gave the example of an American journalist who was in the line of fire risking getting killed as he was taking a cell phone call from a Stanford University professor who told him what he thought about a story the journalist had written.

Fisk pointed to the way that language is abused in stories in the U.S. press. He gave the example of articles referring to the "fence" Israel is building in the West Bank. Rather than calling it a "wall," like the Berlin Wall, it is called a "fence". "Who would ever protest about a 'fence'?" Fisk asked, pointing to the impact that the choice of language used in a news story has on the reader's ability to understand what is at stake. The consequence of how events are portrayed in the U.S. press is that the public is kept from asking "why", explained Fisk. This doesn't help them to understand what is going on in the world.

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Reading from an article on page A14 of the New York Times on April 14, Fisk referred to the multiple references to official sources in one of the stories. Phrases such as "an Interior Ministry Official said", "some military officials said," and "two security officials said," were given as the sources for the story. This was an example Fisk gave to demonstrate how the newspaper was acting as the official spokesman of the U.S. government. He described the catastrophe of what is happening in Iraq and how the U.S. press doesn't tell the American public the reality. Reporters were willing to become embedded with the U.S. military, to get their food, their water, their protection, and their communication from the military, and agreed to accept military censorship of their stories. Being dependent in these ways means that reporters are not going to tell the truth in their news reports. They can't tell the truth, Fisk argued.

John Pilger was the next speaker. He began his talk commending the university for the courageous way it maintained the legacy of Edward Said. Pilger told of a conversation with a Russian journalist who wondered what the mechanism was of the censorship of American journalism. In Russia, journalists would risk torture if they wrote the truth. In the U.S., on the contrary, there appeared to be extraordinary constitutional freedom, and yet there is a censored press. The Russian journalist wondered why American journalists write the stories the censors in Russia would want.

Describing a conversation with a Czech journalist during the Cold War, Pilger related how the Czech journalist told him, "We believe nothing. We have learned to read below the lines." In the U.S., however, the press reports only the "official truth." "The truth is always subversive," explained Pilger, "It comes from the bottom up." Disagreeing with the phrase that the truth was the first casualty of war, Pilger maintained, "it is journalism that is the first casualty of war."

The reason for the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and for the support of the Contras in Nicaragua, Pilger explained, was that these countries were trying to establish a model of economic development different from that of the U.S. Wondering why there was no mobilized anti-war movement in the U.S. equivalent to what was developed against the Vietnam war, Pilger blamed the timidity of academics in the U.S. and of journalists writing for the U.S. press. He pointed out how the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq were not reported in the U.S. press. He gave the example of the impact of the economic sanctions on Iraq after 1991. Iraq couldn't get parts to repair its sewer system, leading to many deaths, including those of Iraqi children.

In response to a question, Pilger found it remarkable that despite the failure of the U.S. press to educate the public about the issues, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population was opposed to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pilger felt that the Internet offered an alternative for reporters to be able to write the truth. "The right to write should be for everyone," he proposed.

The last speaker on the panel was Seymour Hersh. He described how people in the U.S. are stuck in a unique situation with their president. While part of the problem is that when someone writes good stuff, they can't get it in the press, he saw the American crisis as the collapse of all institutions. This included journalism, the Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and the military. "Constitutional government in the U.S. is in trouble," explained Hersh. He proposed that instead of seeking a constitutional amendment on abortion, there is a need for a constitutional amendment for a Parliamentary government so there could be snap elections. The audience applauded this suggestion.

Many questions followed. The questions reflected the serious concern expressed by those in the audience for the issues raised by the panel. In response to questions from the audience, Pilger described the Internet as a hopeful development. Hersh proposed that though he saw a serious lack of leadership in the U.S. about the problems, "I don't think it's over yet." He felt that people may step forward to find a way out of the crisis. Hersh reminded the audience that in a similar crisis during the Vietnam war era, Eugene McCarthy, a Senator, was willing to come out and run for the nomination against a president from his own political party. That challenge had come from below.

Leaving the event on Friday, I felt that there is indeed hope for the future of journalism and for the citizen in the U.S. The talks by the invited speakers, all of whom are professional journalists, and the serious nature of the questions from the audience, demonstrated that when professional journalists risk "telling the truth", citizens respond with an increased conviction and commitment to finding a way to solve the problems of their society.

I see no contradiction between such professional journalists as the four on this panel, and citizen or Netizen journalism. It appeared that these journalists were saying that only when professional journalists act like citizen journalists, telling the truth and not self-censoring or catering to the business culture, will they be successfully fulfilling their obligations as journalists. Thus the event provided a basis for optimism that there will be journalists -- professional journalists and citizen or netizen journalists -- who take on the responsibility of being journalists and of developing the new model for a form of journalism appropriate for the 21st century. (2)

1) The program was held on Friday, April 14, 2006, sponsored by The Heyman Center for Humanities and the Columbia University Human Rights Seminar.

2) When speaking with John Pilger after the program, I mentioned OhmyNews. He responded that he knew OhmyNews and respected it.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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