James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Make the news outfits hear you

The opinion section of the Sunday StarTribune in Minneapolis has a column that is mostly a series of quotes and one-paragraph items from elsewhere. One of the items on May 9 was this 1985 statement by Ben Bagdikian, a journalism educator and media critic:

“Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ on a ukulele: The instrument is too crude for the work, the audience and the performer.”

Looked to me like a forlorn cry for help from someone on the editorial staff.


More information on abuse and torture of prisoners by the American military and “intelligence” outfits appears almost hourly, if you have your antenna up and/or are on the right email lists. As a result of the piece immediately below, the one I posted late Sunday night (5/9/04), I’m on several lists I’d never heard of a few days ago.

Some of the information coming my way is so horrendous that I, like any good American, am deeply reluctant to accept it at face value. On the other hand, the Bush crowd and the Pentagon under that free-rein bunch of nasties, seems not to have any limits on maltreatment of those it deems enemies. I’m going to sit on several things I’ve received over the last few days until or unless I’m able to come to some conclusion about their veracity.

Of course, it should not be my job, nor yours, to discover the truth or falsity of claims against our government or our military and other representatives – at home, in Iraq, Afghanistan or anyplace else. That is the role of what we used to call the press and now generally call “the media.”

I have no faith that they will do the job, nor, I’m sure, do most of the people plugging into this irate journalist’s blog.

In fact, given the performance of recent years, and especially recent days, I’m all but certain they won’t do it. They behave like a child with has hands clamped ostentatiously over his ears, shouting “lalalalala” at the top of his voice in order to avoid hearing an inconvenient truth.

There’s much yet to be said about the egregious failures of American news organizations in covering the criminal behavior of our military, our top leaders and our spy organizations. If anybody deserves to have their feet held to the fire (metaphorically speaking), it is the cowardly editors and producers and the pretend reporters, the practitioners of soft journalism – which is to say, practically everybody in the business.

But while verbally abusing those smug phonies is satisfying, I’m thinking at the moment that it might be more useful to figure out what might be done to push them toward actually doing their jobs, as traditionally defined. That is, reporting all angles of a story, asking questions the powerful don’t want asked, rejecting pat answers from officials and digging until you find those who have the facts, facing down office holders and demanding truth when they try to feed you what you know to be lies – the things that once were expected of journalists.

The only answer that presents itself so far is that liberals must start acting, and start talking to people other than those already known to share our views. If you want American democracy to survive, you have to take a few chances. And, in fact, at this point the risks are very small.

A close friend was for a long time a pro bono public relations adviser to a large group of peace and justice organizations, as they style themselves. He finally walked away from that, muttering obscene things about circles, because no matter how hard he begged, wheedled or lectured, he could not get them to talk to anybody other than each other. What they wanted, as he described the situation, was to feel like they were taking an honorable position without actually having to put anything on the line, even to do something so simple as telephoning or writing a few news people.

Well, gang, the right wing has been leaning on and hanging all over everybody in the news business for decades now, and they’ve been ratcheting up the noise ever since they got that over-rated old ham Ronald Reagan into the White House.

When a television news organization, a radio station or a newspaper reports something the right doesn’t want known, or wishes weren’t true – even if there is a mountain of evidence – its adherents scream at producers, editors, reporters, secretaries and janitors – anybody within reach in that organization. They telephone, they fill email boxes, they load mail carriers with the weight of their ire.

They are in full cry now. The Nazis of the airwaves are screaming that it's all a plot to hurt their beloved George Bush and Co. Right wing congressmen are claiming that there should be no sympathy for the prisoners, who are all terrorists. (You need to know that military intelligence officers admitted to the Red Cross that 70 to 90 percent of the Iraqis the "Coalition" has imprisoned were arrested "by mistake.") They are falsely accusing Seymour Hersh -- almost the last of the great reporters -- of lying in his New Yorker article. They are, of course, using the big lie technique -- not used with such frequency nor such such success since Nazi Germany went under -- claiming that it's all somehow a political scam.

Such campaigns are effective. Faux journalists who are not much given to pursuing truths or standing up to the powerful anyway, know the heat is coming and, when they can, avoid the issues that generate it. Besides, once the right wing propaganda machine is fully functioning, as it is now, and the grass roots rightists have been conned, a lot of the shouters are their parents, their suburban neighbors, the people who were their fellow students in the “good” schools.

The only way to counter such influence is for liberals to make themselves felt just as strongly, though not necessarily so obscenely.

There is a literally desperate need for liberals – and those who simply value truth and understand that democracy demands it – to get off their duffs and write, telephone and email their local radio and television stations and newspapers, and the networks, demanding full coverage of the terrible events now emerging. We must see that they emerge fully from the stinking swamp from whence they come. The public must know all, or how can it judge our leadership, how can it demand that right be done?

Don’t be shy. No one will sue you or come after you. If you’re afraid your neighbors will see your name in print and disagree with you, tough. Get some backbone.

In any case, though letters to the editor are good, the most effective thing is to write and telephone with personal messages to the editors and reporters. Tell them you know they are dodging the uncomfortable truths. Tell them it is their duty to find out and let us know who really set the policies that led to torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. Tell them it is their job to find out who urged or ordered the terrifying of civilians in their homes, the imprisoning of civilians without reason and all the other abuses, contrary to the Geneva Convention, of which our military is guilty. Ask them if it is true that our troops have been raping Iraqi women as a matter of policy (I don’t know, but the accusations are thick).

Tell the chicken-hearted editors that it is far past time that they get us some word on what’s happening in Haiti – whether it is true that American military personnel have abused, tortured, even murdered Haitian civilians (I don’t know that, either. Again, the accusations are thick throughout the world, though we’re not hearing the charges through our newspapers and broadcast outlets.) If the accusations are true, it is the news people’s job to tell us that and dig until they find out who is responsible.

There are other questions begging for answers. Lean on the editors and producers. Call them, write them, over and over. You needn’t be abusive, but you must be firm and not back off when they claim they’re “doing all we can.” Tell them that until they produce the answers, that’s not true.

Some of us have been at them for a long time now, but they can ignore us. They can, and do, write us off as cranks because we are so few. They need to hear from hundreds, from thousands and tens of thousands of people. One at a time.

You can find the addresses, and email addresses, of reporters and editors in the mastheads of newspapers (normally published at the bottom of a page in the front section) and on Web sites, which are easily located simply by typing the name of the organization into a search engine such as Google or Yahoo. The phone numbers are on Web sites and in telephone books.

If there is information you know they should be giving us, demand they produce it. If something they’ve done, some waffling on an issue, makes you mad, let them know.

It is important. It is, in fact, vital. The lazy and cowed newsies aren’t going to do their jobs unless the public demands it. And, by the way, it doesn’t hurt if you send copies of your letters and emails to the people at the very top of the organizations, and to major advertisers.

If you don’t do this, the truth won’t be disclosed.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Torture story badly distorted

The torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Abu Ghraib prison is in every news broadcast, every newspaper, so I figured I’d leave it to others to report and make comment.

Now I find I can’t leave it alone, because the performance of American news broadcasters, newspapers, and magazines in dealing with the issue has been abysmal. If there are exceptions to that, perhaps some obscure publications that have told the full truth so far as it is known today, they haven’t got this far.

As one who spent a lifetime in news work, I often am offended by the performance of today’s corporate “media,” but the treatment of this major story goes beyond almost anything we’ve seen yet for cowardice, self-censorship and malfeasance.

The core of that claim lies in the fact that all of the broadcasters, newspapers and high-circulation news magazines are treating the behavior of the abusive U.S. soldiers as an isolated incident. They continue to word their reports in such a way that the average viewer or reader can’t help but assume that the abuse of the prisoners in Baghdad was a short-lived aberration by “a few bad apples.”

The reporters and editors know that is not true.

They also continue to treat the story as though they, and members of the Bush administration, were “shocked, shocked I tell you” by the disclosure of torture and abuse of prisoners. The pose is that the photographs disclosed abuses that were not previously known to them.

The reporters and editors know that is not true.

Over and over, we have been told that the vile Donald Rumsfeld and his boss “acted as soon as the facts were known,” as a Wall Street Journal editor put it. That is a blatant lie, and the reporters and editors know it. They also know that abuse of prisoners by our military and the various secret government agencies is routine under the Bush administration, under Rumsfeld. If they don’t know that, it is hard to imagine how they have come to such a state of willful, unforgivable ignorance.

In fact, if you listen and read very carefully, reporters very occasionally tell you that the Abu Ghraib situation is neither unique nor a surprise. Somewhere in about one of 20 or 30 broadcasts, and somewhere around the 24th paragraph of one of every 20 or 30 newspaper articles, there is some mention of the fact that one or more agencies had previously reported that such abuse is routine.

The disclosures are made in passing, in such a way that indicates the author doesn’t really want you to hear or see what he/she just said and, that, anyway, it isn’t important. But by slipping a fact or two into the occasional story, they are in a position to say “but we did report it,” if somebody demands to know why they failed to tell the whole story.

One of the little-noticed controversies growing from the abuse story revolves around the fact that no one did a damned thing after the Pentagon in February received a report from Major General Antonio Taguba detailing abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.

In fact, it has been almost subliminally reported here and there that our nominal president was told about an investigation into that situation over the winter holidays. He apparently wasn’t concerned. Yet it puts the lie to the White House claim that Bush only learned about the Pentagon report after the photographs appeared on television news and that he was “surprised” by the whole thing.

But why rely on the Pentagon? For many months, human rights organizations have been telling anyone who would listen about the abuses of prisoners by our military and spook organizations. From Guantanamo to Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib and several other sites in Iraq and other countries, the beatings and humiliation and torture have become standard procedure, though the organizations are careful not to put it quite that way. They simply report on the abuses, first in one place and then another, and ask that it be stopped.

The reports have come from Amnesty International and other organizations of similar high stature and reliability. There was even at least one from the creaky old Red Cross, which, as almost any American enlisted man or woman will tell you, is far better known for sucking up to the brass than for taking a stand on much of anything.

It is impossible that any reporter covering Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo or the Pentagon would not know of the reports and their contents, and impossible that editors in charge of handling international news would not have known.

The May 9 StarTribune, in Minneapolis, carried an article by Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the city’s Center for Victims of Torture, an agency that helps torture victims from around this sad world heal psychologically and emotionally as well as physically from the horrors they have suffered. One of several salient points Johnson makes is that while the Bush administration claims that the torture at the Iraq prison is an aberration, perpetrated by a few “rogue individuals,” the nature of what was done fits the long-established pattern of torturers who are seeking to break individuals down in order to obtain information (whether or not there is any to be had) or some other form of “cooperation.”

Johnson argues powerfully that the only way to determine whether the Abu Ghraib situation is an aberration or part of a pattern is through an international investigation. Of course, we know that the Bush crowd never will allow such an investigation.

There is yet another terrible “surprise” awaiting the American public. Although you’ve probably seen nothing on the subject, there is no way in hell the news agencies, the Bush administration and the Pentagon could be ignorant of the facts: American troops also have been widely accused of abuses and murder in Haiti over the past few months, and some of the reports, again, come from agencies that have been shown time and again to be reliable and truthful.

Several factors combine to cause the gutless wonders of American news organizations to duck their duty to tell the truth about torture perpetrated by Americans.

Yes, one is media ownership: All broadcast news organizations and almost all big newspapers are owned by allies of the Bush crowd. They rarely order their reporters and editors to twist or bury the truth, but they don’t have to. Self-censorship has become a way of life for people who want to get ahead in such organizations.

Then, too, if you press real hard, the answer you finally get from the reporter who failed to tell the whole story often is, “I have to work with those people,” which translates to “If I tell what I know, I’ll lose access to the news makers.” There is one true answer to that: If you don’t do the job honestly, your “access” is as useless as you are. Reporters who lack the guts to do their jobs have always used the access excuse. It used to get them reassigned or even fired; now it’s considered a legitimate reason for not doing the job.

(Yes, I was threatened – often -- with lack of “access” and worse if I reported something. I always reported that thing, and I was sometimes, though rarely, cut off by a source – but never permanently. In the end, all sources need the reporters at least as much as the reporters need them.)

Another reason some stories don’t get told accurately and completely, especially stories reflecting badly on this country and/or its leadership, is that today’s journalists are children of the power elite, the offspring of doctors and lawyers and corporate executives. They were not raised to question those in power nor to be skeptical of leadership.

Still another thing going on is that many reporters and editors are cowed by the extreme right. The rightists, the people who claim to speak for God, the supporters of Bush and his crowd, get truly nasty and abusive if they don’t like what they see and hear and, deny it as they will, reporters, editors and producers are seriously intimidated. They want a film of the murder in hand before they’ll report that a crime may have been committed by anyone favored by the Christian right.

And, of course, there is the fact that those nice middle-class people who now make up reporting and editing staffs have the same tendency as the rest of us to believe that the United States is a morally superior entity and that it’s leaders and representatives would never act in the same way as the savages we are so often called upon to set right. That no longer holds for some of us, but it’s still an article of faith with the vast majority. Even to suggest that American agencies routinely use torture – though you hold a vault full of proof – is to make yourself one of the “hate America first” crowd, and none of us want to join that bunch. We are not a people given to facing unpleasant truths about ourselves.

Don’t be conned. Abu Ghraib is not unique, nor was the abuse there perpetrated by a few out-of-control individuals without the knowledge of their superiors. They were doing what was expected of them, and what is being done in any number of other places at the behest of our out-of-control leadership. Facing that truth and doing something about it will make us stronger.