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.