Category Archives: terrorism

Juan Williams had to go

I’m against censorship and don’t approve of journalists being punished for their views, but I also believe that journalists should avoid discussing their personal opinions in public. Much of the troubles of American journalism today stem from too much opinion being expressed by reporters. And so for that reason I think Juan Williams had to leave NPR — even though it touched off a firestorm.

NPR clearly handled the matter badly, but I think the more important issue is opinionated journalism, which has gotten out of hand. We need to get back to the basics of reporting — telling the public the facts and letting the public make up its own mind. Journalists need to regain the public’s trust by being true, reliable, unbiased reporters, not “analysts” or pundits.

If Juan Williams had said “I have spoken to airline passengers who say they are afraid when the see passengers in Islamic garb,” that would have been an example of useful reporting that sheds light on an important issue. But when he says that he himself experiences that fear, we the public no longer see him as a professional journalist who carefully reports the facts and keeps personal biases out of it — and he loses some credibility.

To make it worse, Williams calls himself a “political analyst” and was drawing a paycheck from both NPR, which tries to be nonpartisan, and Faux News, which, in effect, is a propaganda arm of the Republican Party and has such other luminaries on its payroll as Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. If Williams had wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist, he should never have allowed himself to be paid by a cable network that foments Islamophobia and whose owner contributes large sums to the GOP. And for NPR to be taken seriously as an independent and impartial news network, it can’t have people on its payroll who are also being paid by rightwing propagandists. In fact, NPR would be better served by avoiding or at least minimizing the use of any “analysts” and instead have journalists on its payroll who report what politicians and academics are saying, while keeping their personal views out of it. That’s what journalists like Jim Lehrer do, and he is highly trusted and respected.

(Photo: Baltimore Sun)

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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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Do we care about suffering in Pakistan?

One-fifth of a nation under water. Twenty million people displaced. Eight million in need of water, shelter, or other emergency help. At least sixteen hundred killed. Millions facing years of destitution. A natural disaster of cataclysmic proportions, with unimaginable human suffering. But are the floods in Pakistan dominating our news? No. With a few exceptions (such as PBS, which has led with the Pakistan disaster day after day), our news is dominated by a dispute over where a future religious center should be located in Manhattan.

By late last week American individuals had contributed only $50,000 in private relief aid for Pakistan. At a comparable point after the Haiti earthquake, American individuals had given $34 million. Granted, the Haitian death toll was much higher and Haiti is much closer geographically than Pakistan, but Pakistan is of great strategic importance. It is the world’s second largest Muslim nation. It has nuclear weapons. The stability of its government is crucial for our own security. Its territory is used by al Qaida and other extremist groups that employ terrorist methods against American and other Western targets.

What links the two stories: the muted American reaction to the floods in Pakistan and the dispute over the mosque?

In both cases there is the danger that Muslims will see a pattern of disrespect. They could see Americans as not caring about Muslims suffering in Pakistan, and as not respecting the wishes of Muslims as to where they want to build an Islamic center. Both of these perceptions of disrespect are great recruiting tools for al Qaida.

If Americans really cared about the “war on terrorism,” really cared about depriving al Qaeda of propaganda victories, then Americans of all faiths would show Muslims respect. They would not treat the Muslim religion as suspect. They would not say that a Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero somehow sullies hallowed ground. And they would open their hearts and their pocketbooks to the millions of Muslims in Pakistan who face enormous suffering.

(Photo: Church Times, UK)

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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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Illegality of Iraq war

One small news item that got lost in the crush of other recent stories deserved more play than it got. It made it more clear than ever that there are serious doubts in Britain about the legality of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of Britain, caused a stir in Parliament last week when he said, referring to Jack Straw, who was foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s Labor Government: “Maybe he one day – perhaps we will have to wait for his memoirs – could account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all, which is the illegal invasion of Iraq.”

Clegg is leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, the junior coalition partner of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, which supported Britain’s role in the invasion. After Clegg’s remarks some Conservative leaders including the current foreign secretary distanced themselves from Clegg, but there was no clear statement by the British government as to what its current position is. A spokesperson for the prime minister said the government would not state its position on the legality of the war until after an official investigation known as the Chilcot Inquiry is completed.

The Chilcot Inquiry is the latest in a series of postmortems about the war, this one focusing on the background and aftermath of Britain’s participation in the war. Among witnesses who have testified recently is Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, Britain’s internal security services. She said the Iraq war was a major mistake and one that had helped make Britain less secure against home-grown terrorism: “Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people  –  not a whole generation, a few among a generation  –  who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack on Islam.”

The Chilcot panel also released a previously classified document Lady Manningham-Buller had written a year before the invasion in which she said Saddam was not likely to use chemical or biological weapons unless “he felt the survival of his regime was in doubt.” She added: “We assess that Iraqi capability to mount attacks in the UK is currently limited.”

Lady Manningham-Buller testified to the Chilcot panel that there had been only a low risk of a direct threat to Britain by Iraq and no credible evidence of an Iraqi link to al-Qaida, and she revealed that she had refused a request by Blair’s office to contribute low-grade intelligence to the dossier his office put together to justify the war. She said she didn’t think the intelligence was reliable.

Why aren’t U.S. news media focusing more attention on this?  At the time of the war, the Bush administration repeatedly cited British support to justify the invasion, and now it’s increasingly clear that senior British officials had major doubts as to its legality at the time.

(Photo: guardian.co.uk)

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WaPost series: security threat or Pulitzer material?

The Washington Post‘s  three-part series on the enormous scope of the top-secret network of the government and its contractors has worried some spooks as revealing too many secrets and helping potential terrorists know where to attack. But for me, as a former CNN Washington correspondent, the series looks like a candidate for a Pulitzer Prize.

While some rightwingers say the Post is blatantly trying to destroy national security, the series was carefully researched (nearly two years in the making) and every possible attempt was made to address any security concerns. Reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin went over every detail to achieve a good balance between letting the public know in general where the government agencies and contractors are located and what they are doing, on the one hand, and on the other hand avoiding the kind of detail that might not already be available to potential adversaries such as al-Qaida who are looking for targets to attack.

In recent interviews about the series, Priest and Arkin have made it clear that they bent over backwards to make sure they are not endangering national security, while at the same time breaking valuable new ground in telling us about the astonishing size and unwieldiness of the intelligence octopus. It is truly frightening to think how powerful and unaccountable this apparatus is, and how easily the gathering of secret information could be abused. Before policy makers can even begin to think in terms of sensible reforms to try to rein it in, we first need to know the facts, and this great investigative series is an important first step.

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Afghan war: the cost of not knowing

First Michael Steele raised doubts whether the Afghan war is winnable. Now Senators Kerry and Lugar are expressing their own doubts. But still our news media are not providing enough in-depth coverage to foster an informed debate about war policy.

in Vietnam, American news media were slow to report on atrocities until the My Lai massacre. They were slow to report on the true strength of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese armies until the Tet offensive.  Even then news media didn’t focus deeply enough on the possibility that our leaders had lied and our policy might fail until Walter Cronkite said so on CBS. Then the coverage became more realistic, it became clear to more of the American public that we weren’t winning the “hearts and minds” of the civilians, that “Vietnamization” wasn’t working, and the ground war began to end. (Nixon escalated the bombing but eventually that, too, failed).

The current war in Afghanistan, with its Vietnam-type focus on winning “hearts and minds,” has gone on longer than any other American war, and still the news media are providing little more than superficial coverage — some bang-bang here, a few interviews there, a map or two, a graphic showing the latest death tolls. That’s about it. They need to do much more to tell us in-depth and with historical context what is really happening, whether there’s any realistic chance of separating the Taliban fighters from the civilians, and whether even an American “victory” in Afghanistan would actually prevent future al-Qaida attacks on Americans.

As President Obama said in his commencement address in May here at the University of Michigan, before we can have a debate on any policy we need a reliable account of the facts, and that is the job of news media. His words are especially true in the case of war policy, because, as Senator Hiram Johnson is credited with saying in 1917, truth is the first casualty in wartime. Governments mislead the public. Journalists fear that being negative will make them look unpatriotic. But it’s in wartime that we need the truth the most. And in the case of Afghanistan, without the public having an understanding of the truth, this war and its terrible cost in lives could go on for a long time to come.

(Photo: WN Network)

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