Soon after leaving print reporting and before settling into education and science communications, when people asked me what I did I'd say I was a "recovering" journalist. I'd usually get a laugh out of that line before the enquirer invariably launched into a broadside on biased journalism, sensational reporting, the media's moral bankruptcy, its role as a propagandist and apologist for those in power, and corporate influence on the news.
It is all true of course; reporters and media somewhere in America are guilty of one or the other of these sins sometime. I recall a particularly egregious story from the beginning of the Iraq War. CNN reporter, Kyra Phillips was at a hospital in Kuwait City interviewing doctors who were caring for a 12-year-old boy -- the lone survivor of a US aerial attack on his neighborhood. The boy, Ali Abbas, had lost his father, mother, bothers, sisters, several cousins, uncles and aunts, 15 people in all, in the attack. The boy's arms were so severely burnt, charred down to the bone, that they had to be amputated just below his shoulders. He had life threatening burns over 30 percent of his body. Phillips, full of journalistic concern and training, plied the doctor with questions about the boy and his psychological state. The doctor replied that the boy had thanked people for their attention and that he hoped no other children would suffer as he had. It was at this point that Phillips transformed into the Pentagon's unofficial, unpaid press secretary. "Doctor, does he understand why this war took place? Has he talked about Operation Iraqi Freedom and the meaning? Does he understand it?" But of course. Isn't that what a child who loses everyone he loves and chunks of his own body would talk about? The phrase "Operation Iraqi Freedom" it's worth noting was coined by the Pentagon and a standard slug in its press releases. That it made its way into American newsrooms unexamined, and became the rationale and redemptive theme for the war was a stroke of PR brilliance by the Pentagon's war promoters. "Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall, and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth," author, Jonathan Franzen has a war-mongering character say in his novel, Freedom.
Most of the time though, the people I knew in the media wanted to write stories that mattered or made a difference. Two standouts among them: Noreen Ahmed-Ullah of Chicago Tribune, who did insightful early reporting from Kandahar during the invasion of Afghanistan; and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of Washington Post who followed America's tax dollars down the rabbit hole in Iraq. I know I felt I'd caught lighting in a bottle when I was able to do a lengthy expose over eighteen months investigating and reporting child protection services and the unintended harm, both psychological and physical, of separating children from imperfect but not abusive parents. But there were stories I couldn't write. I remember being taken aback by the number of annual deaths due to cosmetic surgery and campaigning for weeks to do an expose. The request didn't even go up the editorial hierarchy before it was rejected. When I pressed, I was reminded gently that we had many cosmetic surgeons among our advertisers. I stopped newspaper work, I'd like to pretend it was for my inviolable principles, but rather, it was to try other forms of mass communications -- online reporting, museum exhibitions, film, theater, books.
Mainstream media's coverage of Julien Assange's document dump on WikiLeaks got me thinking again about the soul of mainstream American journalism. Thumb through your local newspaper and you'll see three and four bylines to a single article. I've seen two bylines for a report on a single park district meeting. Come on now -- two reporters to cover tree planting and summer camp? There are staff reporters paid to write two and three stories a year. Imagine then, the amount of effort, discipline, dedication, and hard work it took for Assange and his corps of volunteers -- dependent entirely on donor goodwill to press the Paypal button to support their work -- to review more than 400,000 official documents spanning seven years. Think of the labor, care, and attention it must have taken to redact sensitive information (as best they could), categorize each incident by date, type, area, perpetrator, victim, provocation, region, unit, affiliation, classification, category; scan the material, organize the material, create an archive, add links and hyperlinks for references and cross references, and publicize the results.
For his trouble, Assange was rewarded with blistering attacks on his character. Assange delivered a treasure trove of government documents that should have kept curious reporters busy for months, but instead, they circled the wagons to question his credibility. Why? Because Assange is a renegade who did their jobs for them and highlighted their inadequate reporting of the war. Authentic documents - in this case Pentagon documents -- do not need the imprimatur of a commanding authority or the credibility of a messenger. Reporters, like the police, accept tips from everyone and authenticate information on their own. It doesn't matter if Tariq Aziz or Bin Ladin or Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann delivered the documents. In this case, the documents were already verified because of their origins. If Larry King could press Assange to answer questions about his character before he could discuss the documents, why not take that logic to its outer limit and require King to take a character test, let's say on the matter of marital fidelity? And anyone who plans to talk on deep background to Atika Schubert now knows that she'll disclose your identity in a nano-second. All one has to do is pull an Austin Powers and simply ask, "Who told you?"
Where I would question Assange would be for his stated reason for delivering the documents--that he wanted to stop the Iraq War. Giving the material its due should have been enough. My favorite quote about the reason to inform is from Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji: Again and again, something in one's own life or around one will seem so important that one cannot bear for it to pass into oblivion.
The best archivist and memory keeper is the internet, the only place where the news lives without censure. Assange should keep in mind that MSM is irrelevant in 21st century news reporting, and that in future he should consider bypassing it altogether to publicize his leaks to this and other online news forums.
Incidentally, the mainstream media who, prior to the war, asked no questions, took dictation, connected no dots, and drew all the wrong conclusions from the dots they didn't connect, ended up in my novel about war, The Edge of the World. Free pdf download here.