Mark L. Rosen Lecture
University of Vermont Political Science Department
March 22nd, 2012
Golden ages, whether they be of ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy or Broadway Musicals, occur as a result of a combination of unique circumstances. They end when those special conditions are fundamentally changed.
Before I address the demise of network television news- and the news media generally - as someone who was part of the golden age of network television news, I’d like to begin with some thoughts on that era.
On January 30th, 1968, the beginning of the Chinese New Year known as Tet, 70,000 communist troops launched a surprise offensive throughout South Vietnam. The attackers surged into more than a hundred cities and towns, and, for the first time, Saigon and the U.S. Embassy complex in the heart of the city came under rocket fire.
A few weeks later, the U.S. military claimed that because of the heavy losses the Viet Cong had suffered, Tet was a defeat for the communists. That may have been literally true, but Tet was nevertheless both a political and a propaganda victory for the communists, and a key turning point in the war in Vietnam. This was because the intensity and scope of the Tet Offensive shocked most Americans, who had been led to believe that given American superiority in firepower and technology, victory in Vietnam was inevitable if not imminent. This sense of shock was greatly amplified by the key electronic medium of the day- network television news.
At a time when news anchormen rarely left their studios, CBS News’ Walter Cronkite hurried to Vietnam to prepare a special report on the Tet Offensive and its implications for America’s deep involvement in the war. As a veteran World War II war correspondent with the contacts and clout that only an anchorman can have, Cronkite was certainly qualified to do such a report. And, as numerous polls of the day regularly rated him, he was “the most trusted man in America.”
At the conclusion of his special broadcast on Tet in late February, Cronkite did something he had almost never done before- and certainly not on the subject of Vietnam. After much agonizing he decided to put his credibility on the line and offer a personal opinion. This is what he said.
“To say we are closer to victory today, is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion. …..It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then, will be to negotiate not as victors, but as honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
By today’s standards, where opinions rather than facts drive most of what we see on television news, this may sound downright wishy-washy. But in 1968, with Cronkite saying it, this was a big deal.
In fact, at the White House that night, President Lyndon Johnson watched that special report with some of his staff, including his then assistant White House News Secretary Bill Moyers. According to Moyers, “The president flipped off the set and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’” Five weeks later Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election.
Now I am not suggesting that Cronkite changed the course of the Vietnam War. In fact, it would take another seven years before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the American presence finally ended. Nor was Cronkite completely responsible for the president’s decision not to run again. Senator Eugene McCarthy was already contesting Johnson’s re-nomination in the Democratic primaries and a challenge from Bobby Kennedy seemed possible. But Johnson was prescient when he noted Cronkite’s link with Middle America, and by the end of 1968 most of Middle America shared Cronkite’s view of the war.
The golden years for network television news ran roughly from the mid fifties to the mid eighties. In those days CBS, NBC and ABC were indeed the windows on the world for the great majority of the American people. Each night more than fifty million Americans would gather in front of their TV sets at the dinner hour to watch the evening news. (Fewer than 20 million do so today and most of these on are Social Security) The newscasts evolved into a combination national town meeting, teach-in and therapy session where people could learn about and ponder the momentous events of their world, their nation and their neighborhoods. And these were momentous times. The Cold War was at its height and in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, nuclear war was widely believed to be a very real possibility. By 1965 the Vietnam War was raging; by 1968 violent anti-war protests were everywhere.
Also in the 1960s a president, his brother and the country’s most prominent black leader were assassinated - the latter two in the same year of 1968. Below the seething surface, America itself was in the throes of at least four on-going and interlocking social revolutions over race, feminism, sexual freedoms and new technologies.
At such a moment, the newly found power of television could have become an instrument for division and extremism as a free but irresponsible press has sometimes been. But it did not. Perhaps more by accident than design, the news broadcasts of that era were voices of moderation amid chaos. They reflected middle class values and essentially centrist politics, mainly because those who produced them were middle class and moderate- sometimes a bit to the left-sometimes a little to the right, but never far from the center.
The assassination of President John Kennedy was a watershed for television news. Whatever warts have since been discovered on the Kennedy persona, at the time of his death he was a much beloved president. Television’s three-day non-stop coverage of the aftermath of the event, even including the live coverage of the murder of Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallas police station, still went a very long way in calming a deeply shaken, and, at the margin, almost paranoid population. It was crucially important at this time of highest anxiety for the networks to conduct themselves responsibly. After all, just the year before, the United States and the Soviet Union had come to the brink of nuclear war over Russian missiles in Cuba. Oswald had both Russian and Cuban connections. Were the Soviets behind the assassination? Should we launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against them if they were? Such powerful questions were running rampant throughout the country. In the early days after the assassination the TV networks firmly said ”No” and “No” to both questions – the Russians weren’t behind the assassination and therefore pre-emptive strikes were off the table. The country began to breathe easier.
One can almost hear the breathless tones and purple prose, especially of the all news cable channels, if God forbid, something like a presidential assassination should befall us today. But in November 1963, the networks behaved with great seriousness and dignity and in so doing achieved new levels of respect in the eyes of most Americans.
There were many people involved in the news programs but three men became their personifications: Walter Cronkite at CBS, David Brinkley of NBC and later ABC and Howard K Smith who left CBS to anchor at ABC. When you watched them on television you were getting an authentic person, not the creation of focus groups, Q-ratings, makeup artists and publicity departments. These were genuine bona fide journalists who came across on television very much the way they came across in person.
While the personality of each man was certainly different, it’s notable how similar they were in terms of background and journalistic philosophy. All were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. All were from middle class families, though their early lives were far from idyllic. Their mothers were strong and dominant women who seem not to have liked their husbands much. Brinkley says he was an unwanted child. Smith’s father was a ne’er do well from an antebellum aristocratic family gone broke. And Cronkite’s father was an alcoholic. Remarkably too, all were Southerners.
This Southern background turned out to be very important to how they approached probably the most important story of their times- the Civil Rights movement. As young men, none of the three had been an activist for racial equality. Cronkite confessed he lacked the courage to take issue with his Texas high school friends when they made racist remarks. But all had seen enough racism in the South to know that it was morally wrong to perpetuate a system that enforced unequal treatment and protection under the law. This proposition would eventually be accepted by the nation as a whole, thanks in large measure to the extensive news coverage of the Civil Rights movement by network television news. And when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ‘65 were passed, it could be said of the networks, this was their finest hour too.
In its golden age, network television news had its period of greatest influence, mainly because it rejected extremes and had as its symbols, men of unquestioned journalistic excellence and integrity. In so doing, it contributed to peace and stability in both foreign and domestic affairs. The daily arguments in the news rooms were not about what story would be the most broadly interesting, amusing or titillating, but what was the most intrinsically important; what was it that viewers needed to know to make them better citizens. As the then sage of CBS News Eric Severeid put it, “My job is not to tell people what to think. It’s to suggest what they should think about.”
The image of network news has greatly diminished since one of its own was considered the most trusted man in America. In most polling these days the news media generally rank among the least respected or trusted institutions. I might note that while they are now down to near single digits, they still usually come out ahead of the United States Congress in those polls.
So what happened?
As I said at the outset, golden ages end when the unique circumstances that created them are fundamentally changed. In the case of the news media, huge changes came about as the result of new technologies, and these in turn completely changed the business models of these companies. This has been true for print as well as the broadcast media.
I am sure that many of you here know much more than I do about the new information technologies. So forgive me if at times I seem to be stating the obvious. And humor me by allowing me to mention a few of the significant technological changes which occurred in the thirty year span I was a correspondent for ABC News.
My first foreign assignment was to Paris, in the beginning of 1966. Originally I was supposed to go to Saigon, but after the vice president of the news division was killed in a commercial air disaster, a number of personnel changes were made and I ended up in Paris as the roving correspondent - which meant that I would go where the news was, and other than Vietnam, in those days that usually meant somewhere in the Middle East.
But even in Paris, communications then were still World War Two vintage. Most of my interchanges with the head office in New York were by telegram, which given time differences it could often take twelve hours for an exchange. There were trans -Atlantic phone lines via radio but certainly no direct dial. Phone calls had to be booked with the French phone company, they weren’t reliable, could take hours to get through and they were very expensive - maybe a hundred dollars for a normal business call.
After I had been overseas for a year or so, the foreign bureaus started getting Telex machines, which were a big upgrade. Meantime several geo-synchronous satellites went up in this period. This meant we could use the French state television facilities to send pre-packaged stories to New York via satellite. These were complicated to arrange - and could cost up to five thousand dollars a pop- so we did this very rarely.
Of course, when I was first working in the Middle East, communications were even more primitive. We used only telegrams, there were almost no long distance phones and certainly no satellites. Radio news reports were transmitted via short wave circuits, booked days in advance. During the 1967 six day Middle East War, when I got to the Suez Canal with the Israeli forces who had spent the week fighting their way across the Sinai desert and pushing the Egyptians back across the canal, I was on a very big story. This was on a Friday. That night, my black and white film had to be driven back through the desert to Tel Aviv where the next day it was put on a scheduled flight to Rome. In Rome it was transshipped to a Pan Am or TWA plane to the States. When it arrived in New York the film had to be processed and edited. My report finally made the air - Sunday night. By that time there was a cease fire and my big scoop was basically a feature.
Twenty five years later during the first Gulf War, I would do live reports from the roof of my hotel showing Scud missile attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In the intervening years cameras had gone from black and white film to color film, to color tape. They became smaller and smaller so they could be comfortably hand held.
Satellites made direct dial phones possible and cheaper, and there were enough satellites in operation that the cost of using them had been reduced dramatically. And by the time of the October 1973 Middle East War, I got my reports on every night using satellite facilities located in suburban Tel Aviv.
Satellites made direct dial phones possible and cheaper, and there were enough satellites in operation that the cost of using them had been reduced dramatically. And by the time of the October 1973 Middle East War, I got my reports on every night using satellite facilities located in suburban Tel Aviv.
Just as the telegraph had revolutionized print reporting during the Civil War, the important new technologies of my era significantly changed the nature of 20th century war reporting. Satellites ended the two or three day time lag between an overseas event and it being shown on American television. Computers and digitalization ultimately made it possible for two people to carry enough equipment by hand, to transmit live sound and pictures from virtually anywhere in the world. As I would conclude after doing a study at Harvard’s Kennedy School after I retired, live television coverage of the next war was inevitable – but a decidedly mixed blessing. Yet that genie of live coverage of war is now out of the bottle and we simply have to deal with that reality.
These new technologies gave us the capacity to make the news more immediate, more vital and more competitive. Meantime, cable television, which had been around for a number of years, found new and better ways for wiring cities and so millions more people started getting access to cable. And as that happened, cable began to challenge the big 3 networks, seriously cutting into their ad revenues. All news 24/7 cable channels would eventually weaken the big 3’s news monopoly as well.
But all these tech changes I have mentioned, pale in comparison to how the newest of new information technologies have totally revolutionized the main stream media. The Internet, combined with the personal computer and the cell phone- and the accompanying arrival of the social networks Face Book, Twitter, You-Tube and the personal blog - also have begun to redefine what constitutes news- and who or what is a reporter.
No one would argue that citizen reporters, using cell phones amidst the revolutions of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya and now the Syrian uprising, have been anything other than a very good thing for freedom and democracy. But I also believe that professional, knowledgeable and trustworthy reporters must continue to play an important role in our news media- something which I will expand upon a bit later.
This may be a good time to make a general statement about the new technologies. In my view, while they can certainly change the game, they are inherently neither good nor bad. Like all their revolutionary predecessors- from moveable type to the telegraph- they are essentially neutral instruments. Whether they serve society- or subvert it- depends entirely on how these new tools are used- and to what ends.
So, those are the fundamental technological changes that brought about the demise of the golden age. The other significant change I mentioned concerned the business model. The two of course are directly related because it was new technologies that forced many of the business model changes.
When I joined ABC News nearly five decades ago, network news did not function for the purpose of making money. According to the FCC rules of the day, networks were obligated to carry news and some public service programs as a condition of their licenses.
Bill Paley, who owned CBS was a businessman not a journalist, but he very much enjoyed the prestige that CBS News brought him. He did not expect the news department to be a major vehicle for enriching himself or his stock holders. Neither did Leonard Goldenson who owned ABC, nor Robert and David Sarnoff who headed up NBC.
In my first year, 1965, the annual budget for the ABC news division was $5 million - and it lost money. In other words revenues from commercials run on the newscasts did not add up to the department’s expenses. When I left 30 years later - because there were many more news programs made possible by those new technologies – the annual budget for news had ballooned to about $500 million. But commercial revenues not only covered that- they added another $200 million or more to the network’s profits. When I first wrote about this many years ago I coined the phrase- network news divisions went from loss leaders to cash cows. Among other things, such profits began to attract Wall Street and by the nineties all three networks had been bought by conglomerates with few if any connections to the news business. Corporations like GE and Disney were interested only in the bottom line.
The result of this change was that the number one preoccupation for subsequent news managements became ratings, because the amount of money any network news division could earn was based entirely on how many people were watching. And so began what is often described, quite accurately, as the dumbing down of the news - a policy based on the mistaken assumption that soft news would attract more viewers. Show doctors were brought in. Focus groups were employed to come up with more “interesting” items for the broadcasts. This brought us less foreign news and more celebrity stories- fewer investigations and more news-you-can-use. But that didn’t help and network news continued to lose viewers and revenues at an ever faster rate. By the late nineties, cable news and the Internet were taking a huge bite out of both.
One other act of desperation to staunch the financial hemorrhaging was to make major cuts in staff and news coverage. Networks used the end of the Cold War as an excuse to reduce and eventually close most foreign bureaus. Those cut backs were not cosmetic. In 1984 I was transferred to London as the network’s senior foreign correspondent. In those days, London was ABC’s overseas headquarters. We had our own building with our own offices and studios in central London close to the BBC and we had about 200 full time employees. Today, ABC rents a couple of rooms in a building near Heathrow Airport and has fewer than a dozen staffers. But all of these cuts merely had the effect of eliminating some of the previous real strengths of the network news broadcasts – the reporting that made them different and better than cable. And so the ratings slide continued.
There was an old saw that owning a newspaper was like having a license to print your own money. No more. For newspapers and other print media, the challenge of the Internet and the social networks is that they have stolen much of the readership as more and more people turn to the web for their news. And as readership falls, advertising rates go down. Even worse, sites such as Angie’s and Craig’s lists and others have siphoned off most of the classified ads which since the early days of newspapers have been their bread and butter .The result of this is that even major newspapers like the Washington Post have had to make meaningful staff cuts, especially in their overseas news coverage. And even on the domestic side, many old pros have been given early retirement.
The New York Times is hanging on, with the help of a $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu. The Times is trying various ways to charge for its on- line version which is perfectly proper, but people accustomed to getting most everything on-line for nothing, apparently are resisting. So no one yet seems to have found the formula for making newspapers the big money makers they used to be. Actually the aim now is just to survive- and in the case of many papers they are failing at that too.
The once powerful weekly news magazines, facing the same sagging readership problems as newspapers, are only shadows of their former selves. Time is in survival mode. US News basically folded. Newsweek went broke and was sold by the Washington Post for one dollar. In my day news magazine writers were among the highest paid. But it’s obvious from the slim number of pages they now published, that magazines are no longer able to offer the big bucks for reporters and are largely reduced to opinion columns. There are still some good columnists, although I suspect they may be working at discount prices so that they continue to get published. Among other things, this helps them compete for guest commentator appearances on the cable news channels- who pay pretty good money.
Among other general circulation magazines the New Yorker and People seem to be the only ones thriving. Each apparently has a solid number of subscribers and enough big spending advertisers. But publishing, in all its old forms, is clearly struggling and e-books actually published by Amazon.com, may well be the future.
I recently noticed that the once revered Encyclopedia Britannica is no longer going to be available in book form. 2010 was its last book edition and in future, it too will be only available on-line. I guess it will be going mano-a-mano with Wikipedia. The latter certainly doesn’t have the cachet of Britannica, but as it doesn’t pay most of its writers and it doesn’t charge its readers, Wikipedia may just win that battle.
This pretty much brings me to the end of the demise of the news media part of this lecture. What remains is the question, why does all this matter?There are people, and perhaps quite a few in this room who would argue that it doesn’t. They would say that the new media of the Internet, the social networks and the personal blogs represent liberation - from the old style hierarchical journalism ultimately controlled by large corporations - a system that has no real future in the new I.T. age. Moreover, people can now find out things for themselves and think for themselves and they don’t need “professional” journalists to tell them what’s happening.
If I were a lot younger I might feel that way myself. But while age doesn’t necessarily equate with wisdom, it does provide perspective. And what I see, is that in spite of all the platforms available to provide and dispense information, there is tangible evidence that today’s Americans are remarkably ill informed. I think that is a direct result of the new evolving system, where people read, listen and watch only those who share their prejudices. They don’t want to be bothered with “diverse” opinions. And so throughout the Internet and the blogosphere, on talk radio and cable news, what we have are more and more people with passionate, partisan opinions that are largely fact free. We are constantly being told by many of these people that President Obama is a Muslim, a socialist, a communist and a Nazi. And I would guess that if challenged very few of these people would be able to even roughly define what any of those words mean.
In the olden days, we reporters would try to set the record straight when people in the news did nothing but blow smoke. We were discouraged from expressing our personal opinions in our reporting. But we were expected to challenge public figures who distorted the truth or flat-out lied. Nowadays facts and lies don’t seem to matter. What is touted as “balanced” reporting, especially on cable news programs, involves finding the loudest and most extreme voices from either side of an issue and having them yell at each other for a ten minute segment. Viewers learn nothing from such pseudo-debates and I know that I am far from alone in thinking this.
David Gergen is now a Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a commentator on CNN. But David also has a law degree, served in the US Navy in the Pacific, and was a U.S. News columnist and editor. Most notably and for many years Gergen served in the White House as an advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. While working for Clinton, he approached me about becoming the White House spokesman on foreign affairs. When that didn’t work out, he suggested I could be the spokesman for the Pentagon. Especially with no Cold War, I didn’t think that would be interesting so I declined. As it turned out, I really dodged a bullet. Had I taken up the offer, when the Monica Lewinski scandal erupted, she and Linda Tripp would have been working for me at the Pentagon. But I digress.
In a recent interview Gergen talked of his concerns about aspects of today’s journalism. He is not against young journalists. And neither am I. But in his words, “You want younger writers who are really, really bright. But I think covering or understanding the world today does require you to spend enough time doing that.” Gergen continued, “[New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman spent a great deal of time in the Middle East. He got two Pulitzers early on in his life, as a working journalist, on the ground. I thought ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings, who was a serious figure, knew the streets of Beirut better than anybody I knew, and if anything was happening in the Middle East, I’d turn on Peter Jennings because I knew that he’s paid his dues, he’s been there, he’s worked there, he knows it.”And so it comes down to this. The reason the demise of the news media matters - is that when we do not have a reasonably informed electorate, the very nature of democracy is threatened. Citizens need to have a basic understanding of the issues the country faces and what political parties or candidates have done in the past or propose to do in future. But the evidence is building that even with all the new technologies we do not have better informed voters. Actually the opposite may be true.
In ancient Greece where democracy was born, the two political or social classes that vied for power in Athens and most other Greek city states, were the oligarchs and the democrats. The oligarchs tried to establish a state in which only owners of substantial amounts of property could vote and hold public office. The democrats insisted that all male citizens have the same rights. For a century or more the democrats usually prevailed. But the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle, were not big fans of democracy. As Plato saw it, the rich had mostly their own special interests in mind. But rule by the many, was not the answer either. According to Plato, ordinary people were too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians. It was the demos, after all, the majority of ordinary people, who time and again had voted to support the disastrous campaigns of the Peloponnesian War - the 27 year struggle between Athens and Sparta that effectively ended Greece’s golden age. In his best known work, The Republic, Plato opted for neither oligarchy nor democracy - but sought to define and create the ideal community or society- one possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system. This came to be known as Utopia and we’re still searching for that one.
Two thousand odd years later during the Age of Enlightenment, European philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were leading advocates of a new “social contract” between rulers and their people that would replace the “absolute” power of the monarchy. Locke’s social contract included the new concept that political rule or government, should be based on the “the consent of the governed.”
Thomas Jefferson had carefully studied John Locke, and integrated this idea of consent of the governed directly into the American Declaration of Independence -while adding the powerful notion that “all men were created equal.” His many biographers inevitably stress this principal founding father’s abiding faith in the American people. As he once said, “Whenever people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
But he also said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free …. it expects what never was and never will be.” Jefferson’s concern about ignorance and his belief that the people must be informed, drove him to become the great proponent that he was for public education. His other preoccupation, freedom of the press, was directly related to this. Jeffersonian scholars believe that he saw the press as an essential element in providing citizens the objective information they needed to make sound political judgments. Those two ideas are tied together in most journalists’ favorite Jefferson quotation.
"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right. And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."
One thing I might remind you about that Jefferson quote. He said this before he became president. After a stormy presidency and subsequent years during which he was often pilloried by the press, Jefferson may well have come to a different conclusion. Still, there is no doubt that Jefferson firmly believed that Americans must be nurtured to become informed citizens. But more than two centuries later, there is also no doubt that one of this country’s most respected political minds is greatly worried that today’s Americans are not just uninformed but woefully ignorant.
Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser. I was covering the State Department at the time. I had the impression then, that he was uncomfortable with me because I knew Henry Kissinger quite well from having traveled with him a great deal during the Nixon/Ford period –and that I was at that point, flying around with Carter’s Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. In those days Brzezinski was no big fan of Kissinger or Vance, so perhaps that’s why he never became a news source for me. But I respected him then as I do now as one of America’s best strategic thinkers.
Brzezinski’s new book is called Strategic Vision- America and the Crisis of Global Power. In setting up his thesis concerning America’s strategic decline, he lists what he calls, “six critical dimensions (that) stand out as America’s major and increasingly threatening liabilities.” One of those he identifies as, quote “a public that is highly ignorant about the world. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States public has an alarmingly limited knowledge of basic global geography, current events and even pivotal moments in world history.”
Brzezinski supports this assertion by citing surveys that even as US troops were being killed in the Middle Eastern region, 63% of young American adults could not find Iraq on a map and 88% couldn’t find Afghanistan. He mentions polls that show more than half of college seniors didn’t know that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansionism, and that thirty percent of all American adults could not name two countries that America fought in World War Two. He blames this on a deficient public education system- and on the news media- which except for a few major newspapers he holds in low regard.
Brzezinski then continues in this latest book to argue forcefully why this matters. In his words, “The cumulative effect of such wide spread ignorance makes the public more susceptible to demagogically stimulated fear - especially when aroused by a terrorist attack. That in turn, increases the probability of self destructive foreign policy initiatives.” He goes on, “In general, public ignorance creates an American political environment more hospitable to extremist simplifications.”
In an interview about his book on CBS, Brzezinski made it clear that what he has in mind are the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and his alarm over the drum beats of a new war with Iran. As he summed it up in that conversation with Charlie Rose, Brzezinski echoed the sentiments of both Plato and Jefferson. “We can’t have an intelligent foreign policy unless we have an intelligent people.”
While I totally agree, I would like to repeat that the demise of the news media I’ve been discussing, mostly has to do with their loss of respect among the American people which has greatly diminished their influence - and with the failure of their business model, which has left them with an ever-weakening financial base and thus they are less able to do the job of informing the public in ways they once did.
That said I would like to close on a more positive note.
In the often now denigrated “mainstream media,” there remain many reporters willing to risk their lives so that we can be better informed. While most days they get less air time or newspaper space, and there are fewer of them, we are fortunate to still have excellent reporters out there doing their best, sometimes under frightful conditions.
Those who go and work abroad today tend to be better educated than my generation. A number of them have written the definitive books on their subjects - such as Steve Coll‘s “Ghost Wars” about the CIA in the Middle East and Lawrence Wright’s “Looming Tower” on the history of al Qaeda. Fareed Zakaria in his books, his column in Time and his program on CNN is one of journalism’s deepest thinkers. David Ignatius of the Washington Post is a bone fide expert on intelligence matters. We can turn to the vast experience of Tom Friedman of the Times and James Fallows in the Atlantic monthly. George Packer and Jon Lee Anderson did remarkable reporting on the Iraq War for the New Yorker. Christiane Amanpour of CNN and ‘til recently of ABC, for years has excelled in overseas reporting.
My former colleague Anne Garrels, who spoke fluent Russian, did perceptive reporting from Moscow for ABC as the Soviet Union collapsed. Later, she won awards for her work for National Public Radio in Baghdad during the height of the chaos of the Iraq War – a war which cost the lives of more journalists than any war in history. Margaret Warner of the News Hour on PBS does solid foreign reporting. So do most of the foreign correspondents of NPR. Among network correspondents today, NBC’s Richard Engel, who speaks Arabic, stands out.
And I find the stories out of Cairo by David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times as informative and nuanced as anything done in my day.
I’ve saved the final mentions for two reporters who recently paid the ultimate sacrifice in the course of doing their job.
Marie Colvin, who was from Long Island and worked for the London Sunday Times, was right in the middle of what is now a Syrian Civil War. Colvin was distinctive for the eye patch she wore to cover the eye she lost when she was shot while reporting on the civil conflict in Sri Lanka in the early nineties. This was her last message, sent not long before she and a French photographer were apparently targeted and killed by rockets fired by the Syrian Army.
She wrote, “I think the reports of my survival may be exaggerated. [I ‘m] in Baba Amr.” That neighborhood of Homs was the focal point of resistance to the Syrian regime and in retribution, its people and their lightly armed defenders were subjected to relentless pounding by government tanks and artillery. “Sickening,” wrote Marie. “[I] cannot understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel. Doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until he stopped. Feeling helpless. As well as cold! Will keep trying to get out the information.”Anthony Shadid won two Pulitzer prizes for International News Reporting - one while working for the Washington Post, the other while with the New York Times. Shadid was born in Oklahoma. His family had its roots in Lebanon. He was familiar with Arabic but became fluent only by working diligently at it as an adult. This gave him a big advantage over most Western reporters as he could easily pass as a local. As good as he was in explaining the politics, or describing the battles of the Middle East, he was even better in depicting the basic humanity of the people and their struggles. Much of his work centered on ordinary people who had been forced to pay an extraordinary price for living in the region – or just for belonging to whatever religion, ethnic group or social class they were a part of. In his books and his reporting in two of America’s best newspapers, Shadid was able to change the perceptions of many people in this country who are prone to seeing Arabs as either decadent rich oil sheiks or a bunch of ignorant rag-heads with terrorist inclinations.
Anthony Shadid continually risked his life in Baghdad during the Iraq War. He was shot in the arm while reporting from the West Bank. And last year he came close to being shot as a spy when he was captured by Qaddafi loyalists in Libya.
For the past year, although based in Beirut, Shadid spent much time in Egypt covering its new revolution. Periodically he’d been sneaking into Syria from Lebanon to see and hear for himself about the ebb and flow of the efforts of the Syrian opposition to oust the dictator Bashar Assad. Last month, he again eluded the Syrian authorities. But Shadid suffered from severe asthma, and near the end of what would be his last covert trip into Syria, he died from a major asthma attack. He was 43 years old with a wife and two children.
The news media world is much poorer for the loss of the likes of Colvin and Shadid. These two reporters knew they were taking great risks, but they persisted with their very dangerous way of life. I have often been asked, what motivates people to go to cover wars?
As it happens Marie Colvin eloquently answered that question, as the speaker at an event just over a year ago, to honor the many journalists and those who help behind the scenes, who in the past decade lost their lives while doing their jobs. This is part of what Ms. Colvin said on that occasion at St. Brides Church in London.“We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government and our armed forces are doing in our name We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians. War reporting has changed greatly in just the last few years. Now we go to war with a satellite phone, laptop, video camera and a flak jacket. I point my satellite phone to South Southwest in Afghanistan, press a button, and I have filed.”
She continued, “In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and twitters, we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same – someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can't get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people - be they government, military or the man on the street - will care when your files reach the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.”
And so my message is this. If we truly care about what is happening in this country and in our world, there are still people in the news media in whom we can put our trust - and to whom we can give our support. The best way to do this is to pay attention to what they write and broadcast – and - to tune out the hate- spewers, the misogynists, the racists and those who would divide us. If enough of us do this, America will be better informed- and its democracy may yet be saved.
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