The Digital Journalist
Views from Other Places
April 2007

by Peter Howe

If there's one piece of advice based on my own experience that I feel confident to give to younger photographers it's this: When photographing rock concerts use hearing protection. In about 1982 I was doing a story about Sting for a British color supplement. He was still with Police then and they were performing at Shea Stadium in New York. After spending two days with him I prepared to photograph the concert. Because I had been backstage, by the time I got into the arena most of the best spots had gone – except for a great position right in front of the speakers that were loud enough for every one of the 50,000 fans to hear. As the result of this piece of foolishness the ringing in my ears that I experienced at the end of the last set is still with me today.

One of the few interesting aspects of hearing loss is the fact that people get angry with you for having it. They take the fact that you can't hear them personally, as if you're not listening instead of not hearing. Mind you, with me at least it's only individuals that I can't hear. With George Bush it's the entire country. On the other hand it may be because he's not listening, in which case we have a right to be angry. The midterm elections were a ringing condemnation of his administration – even he admitted that. But has it changed the way he intends to do business in the last two years of office? Not one iota. When the electorate tells him they want their troops out of Iraq, his answer is to send in more. For all his declarations of wanting to export democracy to those countries that don't yet have it, his administration is the least democratic of any in the 30 years that I've lived in this country. I don't know why it is that we keep electing to government people who don't believe in government. It's the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Church giving bishoprics to atheists.

In fact the disaffection of the vast majority of the American electorate to this administration and its policies was many steps behind that of the rest of the world. I was reminded of this in an e-mail response to my March column from a reader in Brazil, which I reprint with his permission.

Dear Mr. Howe,

I wish most of American Journalists and Media could reach your degree of awareness about Mr. Bush's politics for the rest of the world.

I'm 60 years old now, but I still recall my first trip to the US, back in July 1967. America, and especially, New York, was not living its easiest days – for the country it was the escalation of the Vietnam War; for New York, a sensation of decay. At that time, I used to work for Pan Am, at their Ticket Office, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That trip was to attend a company course and, being my first time in the US and NYC, I was excited. I marveled upon arrival with JFK Airport at the non-stop takeoffs and landings. One thing I do not forget was how easy it was to check through Customs and Immigration. No big deal. Fast, few questions, no hassle. After that trip, I went back to the States many times. Still easy.

Forty years have passed, the Towers grounded, and, suddenly, every foreigner is suspicious – a potential enemy. Now we spend hours in line, and there are a lot of embarrassments for those arriving to "The Land of the Free." No more smiling, no more "welcomes." The World is against the US. Or is it?

Watching documentary films about World War II, one can still see the American Troops entering Paris and other European cities, freeing them from domination by the Nazi armed forces. Liberation! Americans were received and saluted as heroes!

After the war's end came the beginning of the "Cold War," as Churchill called the East-West situation, followed by Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, etc., etc.

Today I ask myself whether the American People really know why most of the World "dislikes" (a polite word) the USA.

Does the average American know what goes [on] around the World? Do people really know and mind about countries other than the US? Does the general public know about what really happens in Iraq, Afghanistan or in the dungeons of Guantanamo Base [sic]?

I'm worried as you are, too. But I'm glad to know that not all of the American press, and media, went deaf and blind, embracing the "preemptive war" concept.

I'm glad to know that people like you do not swallow what Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Ms. Rice and other "falcons" preach.

Let's hope for a new revival of the true American Press! The politics? Well these may be a little harder...

Best Regards,

Carlos Alvim


Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

I know through my own travels and through other communications from international readers that Sr. Alvim's feelings towards this country are not atypical. There is much about the USA that the world embraces, especially, and maybe unfortunately, its entertainment and fast-food industries; this country is the largest supplier of foreign aid in the world, as it should be; the inventive and creative power of America has provided many of the technologies upon which the world depends. It is this administration's imperial ambitions and the policies associated with them that the rest of the world decries, and how the world views us, I believe, does matter.

One of the problems with a country as vast as this is that from time to time it regards itself as a world unto itself, disconnected from other nations. Our history of recurring isolationism is not much different to that of other immense lands such as China or Russia. I'm sure that there are many people who vote in this country who have never even seen the ocean, let alone those nations on the other side, and as with Russia and China, this dislocation from others tends to encourage extremism. One of the most valuable services journalism can provide is to expose the members of the society it serves to the cultures and concerns of other nations. When the French refused to join our misadventure in Iraq there was much more reporting in this country about the anti-French hysteria – Freedom Fries and banning French wines – than there was on the reasons for their government to make what now seems to have been a very wise decision. It's not enough for the media to reveal to our citizens what happens in other parts of the globe, but also why it happens, and to do so without bias or prejudice. Nothing combats zealotry like understanding.

The other thing that journalists can do is to lead the charge towards restoring freedom and openness within our own society. The blank check that was given to the Bush administration after 9/11 must be torn up, for it has served us poorly. We should be more welcoming to foreigners, not less. We should be encouraging more foreign students to study here, especially those from Islamic countries. Many of the people who are the avowed enemies of the United States have never been here, and have a distorted and deformed idea of what this country is about. Studying here for two or three years may not change their minds about us, but it's worth the risk, especially if they can take back to their societies a picture of America that is substantially different from that painted by the fundamentalists. The more integrated into the world community the United States is the more secure it becomes; the more insular and isolated from that community the more it is a target.

In his book The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell posits the argument that small actions can make a difference vastly out of proportion to their size. An e-mail from a photographer in Rio is a small thing, and yet in its own way may be more important than a State Department communiqué. The more people who understand that what frightens them about the United States isn't the people of the United States, or even its government, the easier it is for us to live together. What has been and is frightening are the fantasies of a few discredited fanatics who wished to remake the world in their own image under the cloak of the war against terrorism.

For all their problems, which are many, the best thing about blogs is the fact that they are inclusionary rather than exclusionary, that for the most part they bring people together rather than split them apart, even if they are at opposite ends of the political or religious spectrum. One of George W. Bush's more absurd fantasies is that he will be remembered as a latter-day Winston Churchill. He would do well to remember that his hero, mine also, who could never have been accused of appeasement or "cut and run," once said, "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor