The Digital Journalist
In Search of the Middle Way
July 2004

by Peter Howe

We should be ashamed of ourselves for being journalists. If it weren't for us the world would be in much better shape. For one thing, those of you reading this while cowering in the luxurious comfort of your hotel rooms in Baghdad, if you only got out there and did some real reporting like men, instead of rumor-mongering while drinking your expense-account martinis in the bar, then hostages wouldn't be taken, car bombs wouldn't go off, and Halliburton could get on with the business of making billions of dollars from untendered contracts. At least that's what Paul Wolfowitz, the number two guy at the Pentagon, thought before he issued an apology for a statement he made along those lines. He probably still thinks it, but realizes that one of the downsides of living in a democracy is that you sometimes have to apologize to a free press.

Yes, it's the season once again for blaming the messengers. If things start to unravel, don't blame your inadequate preparation or dubious motives; attack the people who are reporting your inadequate preparations or questioning your dubious motives.

I suppose that Wolfowitz's moral rectitude that allows him to accuse our braver colleagues of cowardice is based on the fact that he has been to Iraq and he did visit parts other than Baghdad. However, the other parts were all U.S. military establishments or similarly secure areas, and many reporters and photographers might well be more cavalier in their approach to traveling around the country if they did it in Black Hawks accompanied by armed guards.

An equally scary, but more laughable, example of this distorted thinking came from the mind, for want of a better word, of Fifties' songbird Pat Boone. For those of you fortunate to be young enough not to know who Pat Boone is, he has a long history of preferring a sanitized view of life. He was responsible for changing the words of many a black singer's lyrics to make them more acceptable to the parents of white, suburban offspring. For instance, Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" became "Isn't That a Shame" in Mr. Boone's version.

What got this pillar of moral wisdom outraged enough to put fingers to the keyboard was the fact that CBS' "60 Minutes" had the nerve, not to mention the depravity, to show the Abu Ghraib photographs to the world. According to Mr. Boone, this dastardly act was tantamount to treason, and he for one is not putting up with it anymore. He has, therefore, started a campaign to get America not to watch CBS, something that they seem to be doing anyway, but for entirely different reasons.

Then there's the case of the New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau, who recently incurred the wrath of FBI spokeswoman Cassandra Chandler. Because of what she considered his biased reporting of a particular story, she sent a memo to top FBI officials urging them to "avoid providing information to this reporter." In one of those remarkable coincidences that seem to happen quite often in Washington, his credentials for the Justice Department were revoked around the same time. Justice claimed that this was routine and the result of Lichtblau's infrequent visits to the department. The reporter responded that he went there regularly once a week, which to my mind is more than enough time spent in close proximity to John Ashcroft.

Does this sound familiar to you, or remind you of any other country at any other time? Those who answer "Stalinist Russia" will be grossly exaggerating, but thinking along the right lines.

It is remarkable that an administration which espouses democracy and Christian values should be so opposed to the freedom of the press and shows so little charity to those whom they perceive to be their enemies (which seems to be anyone who doesn't toe the party line completely.) No turning the other cheek for these Christians.

The irony of the situation is that the press has been doing such a terrible job of calling the administration to account. With very few exceptions, publishers and editors have played cattle to George W's trail boss, calmly being herded into whichever ideological pen he chooses. When compared to the passion with which they reported Bill Clinton's peccadilloes, they have been virtually mute over the actions of this president, whose failings are far more dangerous than an overactive libido. It seemed that after September 11th, 2001, they fell into a pit of confusion from which they have yet to find the exit. They couldn't work out a way to criticize the administration and its "war on terrorism" without sounding unpatriotic and dishonoring the memories of the 3,000 souls who were murdered on that day. But then neither did the Democratic Party, so maybe I'm falling into the Wolfowitz camp of media analysis.

I first came to this country in 1974 and instantly fell in love with it. The openness, enthusiasm and sense of possibility that I found here was such a contrast to the restrictive, class-conscious background of my upbringing in England. Within five years I was a resident, and became a citizen 12 years ago. I still love this country, and want nothing but the best for it, but it has changed dramatically in the time that I've lived here. It has certainly become more polarized, where the middle ground, both politically and socially, is disappearing faster than the tropical rain forest.

It seems to me that this process began with the administration of Ronald Reagan. His embrace of the doctrine of trickle down economics, where the wealth never seemed to trickle too far from those who had it in the first place, started the crack that has become a chasm. It encouraged the greed of the Eighties, and I believe that it eventually led to the mean-spiritedness that we see today, where political debate has degraded into a schoolyard fight between the bullies of either side - Bill O'Reilly in the blue corner and Michael Moore in the red.

It is always in times of crisis, such as I believe these are, that the work of the journalist becomes ever more important, for without a free and, as importantly, fearless press, there can be no truly effective democracy. It used to be said that the freedom of the press is restricted to those who own one, but in the age of the Internet, this is no longer true. Any search on any topic will bring up sites that are uninfluenced by corporate or political interests, but here, too, the middle ground is sadly missing. Too often it is the voices of the demagogues that are the loudest.

Unless as journalists we can influence a coalition of moderates, then our system of government and our way of life are in for some rocky times. The temptation to answer extremism with extremism is great, but will lead, and maybe already has led, to a global conflict of fundamentalists, including, but not necessarily limited to, Islamic, Christian and Jewish extremists. Our challenge as journalists is to be the voice of moderation and, at the same time, to make our message compelling in a society becoming increasingly attuned to hysteria.

Today a politician who changes his or her mind is labeled a waffler, instead of thoughtful; conversely one who sticks rigidly and inflexibly to a preconceived ideology is a strong leader, irrespective of the direction in which we are being led. The one thing we cannot do is give up or give in.

Despite Mr. Wolfowitz's assertions, the one characteristic that journalists have shown time and time again is courage. It is a quality that we need now as much as we've ever needed it.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor