Category Archives: Obama

Koran burning coverage: a tough call

If the Florida pastor had gone through with his threat to burn the Koran, should news media have covered the event? And if so, how much coverage should they have given?

This is one of the toughest decisions in the news business. News organizations differed in their plans. Fox, CNN and the AP said they would not provide pictures. The New York Times did not rule it out but indicated it was leaning against publishing pictures.

To come up with the right decision, editors and producers have to conduct a balancing test, weighing two important ethics principles of the Society of Professional Journalists, the main professional association of American reporters. The first and most important principle is Seek Truth and Report It. The second principle is Minimize Harm. In this case, the two principles are in conflict.

Burning the Koran would have been an event, and the journalist’s job is to report the facts of newsworthy events in an honest, reliable and truthful way so that the public has enough information to make an informed judgment. So the first principle would apply.

But burning the Koran clearly would have caused great harm. Already people have died in demonstrations in Islamic counries over the mere threat of this happening. In fact, today (Sunday, Sept. 12), even though the Koran burning never took place, two people died in violent protests in Afghanistan. Had the Koran burning actually happened, American troops would have been at risk. We’ve already seen how, in 2005, an erroneous Newsweek report of a Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo touched off riots in Islamic countries in which people died. (In one two-day period in Afghanistan, the BBC reported, seven people were killed.) So the second principle also applies.

How do you reconcile these two?

Before the threatened Koran burning gathered public attention (hyped by a Tweet and Facebook item by the pastor and then excessive news media coverage), there would have been little need to cover it. It would have been a minor stunt by an obscure church. But once Gen. Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Gates and President Obama, among many other leaders, had issued public calls urging the pastor to cancel the event, it would have been improper for journalists not to cover it, including providing images of the event. For one thing, there was no guarantee that all news organizations would boycott coverage, and all it would take would be for one news organization to take one picture for it to become viral on the Internet. So any one news organization’s not covering it would not minimize harm.

For another thing, even if no news organizations covered it, some individual with a cell phone camera undoubtedly would have put images on the Internet. The damage would have been done, and riots and even killings of Americans would likely ensue. In this situation, the value of coverage by a serious, credible, professional news organization would be to make sure that, since the story is going to get out anyway, a truthful, reliable, impartial and undistorted account should be made public, to counter any false reports, rumors or propaganda about what exactly happened. And that includes accurate, contextual images of the event.

Just because something is offensive and disturbing does not mean it should not be covered. The AP photo of a monk immolating himself in an anti-government protest during the Vietnam war was highly disturbing but it was important for the public to know that such protests were taking place, and to know what exactly happened.

The third SPJ ethics principle is Act Independently. If news organizations censored themselves because of threats of violence, they would violate that principle. It’s vital that our news organizations be free to act without fear or favor, so that we the public can be confident that important information will not be suppressed and that we can trust our journalists to be fearless and forthright in making sure we get all the facts.

So, a tough call, but on balance I would favor limited coverage, not hyping the story but not ignoring it either.

(Photo: boston.com)

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Filed under media bias, news media, Obama, terrorism

Mosque hysteria: time for decency

During the McCarthy era, one of the great voices of reason was that of Joseph Welch, the attorney for the Army, who said: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (See video.) That was the beginning of McCarthy’s decline, and from then on the American press no longer published every inflammatory claim he made.

We need someone like Joseph Welch today who can expose the indecency of the demagogues who exploit the American public’s ignorance and fear of Muslims. And we need news media to stop giving free, uncritical air time to these demagogues. People like Newt Gingrich need to be exposed for what they are, dangerous political opportunists who have no sense of shame.

The latest example of that has been his fanning the flames of hysteria over the planned mosque near Ground Zero. After earlier saying no mosque should be built there until synagogues and churches are built in Saudi Arabia, Gringrich this morning reached a new low when he compared having a mosque near Ground Zero with having a swastika sign near the Holocaust Museum. As reported by Mediaite, Gringrich said on Faux News:

“The folks who want to build this mosque, who are really radical Islamists, who want to triumphfully (sic) prove they can build a mosque next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists. Those folks don’t have any interest in reaching out to the community. They’re trying to make a case about supremacy… This happens all the time in America. Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.”

Gingrich is a bully who has been throwing rhetorical bombs for decades, but enough is enough. It’s time for someone respected by the American public to step up and say: At long last, have you no sense of decency?
And the press needs to treat him the way they treated McCarthy when it was clear that he was a dangerous demagogue. They stopped giving him free air time.

(Photo: cla.calpoly.edu)

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Filed under news media, Obama, terrorism

Mideast: no peace, no process

I was going through some very old CNN tapes yesterday and came across a quote from U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in 1987 during a visit to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. In a speech that I covered, Shultz encouraged the Israelis to take a risk for peace. What struck me about that quote is that it was almost exactly what President Obama said this week about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“I think he’s willing to take risks for peace….”). Twenty-three years later and the U.S. is still saying the same thing to Israel.

Headlines from twenty-three years ago spoke of “Hope for Peace Talks” but it’s now clear that there never was any hope by anyone informed of the true situation. And can journalists really use the term “peace process” to describe the fruitless attempts at meaningful talks that have taken place decade after decade in the Middle East? There ought to be a more realistic, truthful term to describe the situation. “Peace process” has a nice sound to it, and serves as a reminder what the desired goal ought to be, but there’s no peace and no process, just a seemingly endless series of fits and starts.

A cynic might wonder whether U.S. politicians ever really cared about peace in the Middle East. One problem is that even if American officials wanted to do something meaningful, they can never get very far without running up against political reality. A first-term president is thinking about re-election and usually the main issue is the economy, not the Middle East. A second-term president is often a lame duck, and the politicians who are candidates to replace him do not place the Middle East at the top of their agenda because that’s not what wins them the votes they need. Unless the Israeli-Palestinian situation is on the front burner, it won’t receive much American attention.

Which brings us to the news media. Since politicians won’t focus enough on the Middle East to make a difference, journalists need to. Journalists need to keep focusing public attention on the human suffering in that part of the world, and on the cynical exploitation of it by local politicians. European news media do a much better job of this than American news media. American journalists oversimplify complex developments, often playing up the viewpoint of Israel, America’s ally, or getting sidetracked by trivial issues. Journalists need to report more seriously and more in-depth on the historical context for each news development. You can’t understand the Middle East without understanding history, and since our schools don’t teach enough history, the American public often learns about the world and its past largely through the news media — which is a sad commentary and one that doesn’t offer much hope for the future.

(Knesset, White House photos)

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Filed under CNN, Israel, Middle East, news media, Obama, Palestinians