One of my fellow Knight Ridder editorialists, Mark Yost of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is under fire from some of our colleagues for expressing an opinion that, to me, seems demonstrably true: that American press coverage of the war in Iraq is unfair and one-sided, focusing almost entirely on the negative and ignoring the positive things going on there. Why is this such a controversial observation? In the first place, the "news" is inherently negative; you've probably heard the rationalization that "no one reports on the thousands of planes that don't crash every day." Why would this characteristic of the news be any less true in war reporting than in any other kind? In the second place, the mainstream press has such an obvious anti-Bush-administration bias that it's not even debatable. Skepticism has been replaced by seething cynicism, and if you don't feel that oozing out of reporters' pores during White House press briefings, we must be watching different sessions.
The controversy really took off when Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, started venting his spleen. You would think that someone in Lovelady's position, leading a publication that is supposed to provide balanced and therefore incisive criticism of journalistic practices, might have used Yost's observations as the jumping-off point for a healthy debate on war coverage. But Lovelady had obviously already made up his mind -- the press can do no wrong in Iraq, and anybody who says otherwise has to be smacked down -- and dumped all over Yost. His tirades won't do much for the people who have already concluded that the press has become an America-basher intent on depicting this country, in any international dispute, as wrong if not downright evil.
(For backgrounding on Yost/Lovelady, read this account by Jeff Jarvis.)
The reputation of the press is already in shreds, and I suspect its performance in the war on terror will destroy whatever is left. We can argue over whether Iraq is a legitimate front in that war; I have mixed feelings but, on balance, think trying to plant the seed of democracy in the Mideast gets at the heart of the conflict and is worth trying. But that's irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion. I don't see much difference between 1) Going on and on and on about how the Iraqis are suffering today, without acknowledging their far more profound suffering, with no hope in sight, under Saddam, and 2) continuing to feign horror over the terrorists' treatment at Gitmo and trying to understand them even in the wake of yet another demonstration of who they are, what they are capable of and what their goal is.
There is a war going on, and the press had better pick a side. It's not a matter of supporting the administration or overlooking our own mistakes or sitting out the legitimate arguments over particular policies. This is a clash of civilizations -- or, rather, a war between civilization and its antithesis -- that will go on beyond this administration and this generation. Surely the dictates of objective journalism do not require its adherents to be neutral about the outcome. I know this isn't World War II, when reporters actually thought we were the good guys and let that guide their efforts, but come on . . .
And it's not quite as simple as asking people to be Americans first and journalists second. People can be both, and the whole point of this country is to empower the individual. We are both things simultaneously, journalists with enormous freedom to practice that calling and citizens of a nation that has given us the freedom. It's not too much to ask that, when the occasion calls for it, we let one rise to the surface a little more at the expense of the other.
War might be the most dramatic example of the need for such a self-examination, but it's not the only one. I am both a journalist and a member of the community in Fort Wayne, Ind. Most of the time, there is no conflict in those dual identities. Practicing good journalism -- telling readers what is going on and, as as much as we can, why and what it means -- improves the community. But there are times when our responsibility as community members outweighs our duties as journalists. If the flood waters are coming, as, God knows, they do here often enough, it's time to put down the notebooks or cameras and join the sandbag brigade; we can report later. One of our TV stations once hid its cameras and shot pictures of cars being swallowed up by a giant pothole, without, you know, reporting the pothole to the city so that cars wouldn't be swallowed up by the pothole. Dramatic footage, yes, but it wasn't great journalism; it was lousy citizenship.
I don't claim to know what the proper balance is between journalists' obligations to their profession and their communities. Fort Wayne is luckier than most cities in having, thanks to a joint operating agreement, two competing newspapers. Our rival has long had a policy forbidding most reporters and editors from being on the boards of community organizations. I've always felt such a policy puts the paper too far outside the community, to the point where it can't really understand the issues it is supposed to be reporting on. Our paper has had a looser policy that encourages community involvement, with some obvious exceptions not letting reporters belong to groups they're actually covering. A case can be made that this makes us too involved in the community, to the point where we can't really be objective.
But I know there is a balance and, that if we don't examine it periodically, we'll lose our way. The press being what it is (nothing sinister implied, I just mean the nature of the business), we are most likely to err on the side of too little involvement and understanding. And if that persists, as I think it clearly has in coverage of Iraq and terrorism, the press will be seen as not merely indifferent to America and its interests but downright hostile to them.
No, we don't need rose-colored-glasses reporting. Constantly cheerful optimism, when it is not warranted, is just bad as unrelenting negativism. But, some balance, for goodness sake. Our newspaper had a reporter embedded in Afghanistan and, guess what, his reporting reflected an understanding of the soldiers' perspective. The fact that Yost's call for some balance is eliciting such hysteria from some in my profession is not a good sign for the press or, unfortunately, the American public that deserves and needs a complete understanding of the war we're in and our stake in its outcome.
There is a flood of terrorism threatening to engulf us, if I may be permitted a clumsy metaphor. Even if the press doesn't care to pick up a sandbag once in awhile, can it please stop sniping at the people who are hoisting them? There are aspects of the war I don't claim to understand, but I do know this: The flood isn't the good guy.