A woman seeks refuge in a Tripoli hotel hosting western journalists. Nothing new in this version. If you’ve seen it anywhere, you’ve seen this. .
Journalism has enemies. The most obvious are authoritarian tyrants and the thugs who prop them up. The outrage expressed by the reporters who witnessed that horrific scene in a Tripoli hotel is genuine. It’s also stupid. Where, exactly, do these people think they are? This isn’t a Holiday Inn on Miami Beach. It’s a marginally safe zone for thugs and western reporters only, within the enclave of a mad dictator. It’s an act of extreme faith, or total self-delusion, to place oneself at the mercy of a proven killer to begin with. It’s naïve to expect anything short of an effort at total population and information control by the authorities in a totalitarian regime. Western journalists may have grown accustomed to being granted access all over the world, even in the midst of ongoing wars, but it’s a dangerous and foolhardy assumption to believe a dictator will exercise any form of restraint when the chips are down. Perhaps we were lulled into a false sense of security on this night…
CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War, 1991. .
CNN’s reporting was a sensation but Arnett was saddled with the moniker “Baghdad Pete” for appearing too pro-Hussein. By 2003, he was being accused of treason. Today, an entire pool of reporters is being carted around Tripoli and environs courtesy of the madman and nobody seems to think that’s odd. In just a few decades we went from an understanding of the dangers through a debate about nationalism to an obsession with voyeurism that overrides judgment and places good reporters at risk. What will happen to the journalists in that hotel if it becomes clear that Gaddafi is going to lose while they’re still under his control? We don’t know. It’s possible the regime will fall rapidly and western journalists will be the least of the authorities’ concerns. It’s possible they’ll do something horrific just to spite the westerners they can get their hands on. Gaddafi is well-armed and totally insane. Anything is possible. Let’s imagine, for a moment, another time in history and ask ourselves if a pool of reporters would have either been welcomed or even survived in a similar context…
Excerpted from the documentary “Century of Warfare.” .
It would be next to impossible to find any reporter who thinks it would have been a good idea to be at the mercy of Adolph Hitler, no matter how sensational the stories might be. The same is true for regimes throughout history and still in existence on Earth today. The pool of reporters that is currently holed up in Tripoli wouldn’t dare cross the North Korean border. When a pair of Current TV video journalists was captured in North Korea, many questioned their professionalism and wondered aloud if the United States government should even consider their retrieval a priority. They were lucky to be working for Al Gore and useful as political chips for the regime. North Korean authoritarianism is no secret. There are ways to get stories out of North Korea without sending naïve and ill-prepared youngsters into the lion’s mouth. But the North Koreans do us a favor by making it obvious to news outlets that they are not welcome. What makes Libya or China different? Access? Access to state propaganda? Does the stenographic nature of reporting on their own governments inure western reporters to the same kinds of propaganda emanating from foreign dictatorships? I have to conclude that it does.
But all this speaks to a larger issue that is studiously ignored in the press for a couple reasons. One, it’s self-referential and, therefore, not a common topic for reporters. Two, it’s a product of the profit motive in journalism. News outlets have become so desperate for sensational content that they barely recognize journalism’s enemies when they see them. Other than the most obvious cases, like North Korea, some reporters and their organizations don’t even consider the risks anymore. And if CNN, Channel 4, and Fox News did consider the risks and sent their journos in anyway, they should be held criminally liable for any misfortune that befalls their reporters while under the control of an openly brutal dictator. We know reporting from war zones carries tremendous risk, no matter what. But that risk is compounded when the reporters don’t know what side they’re on. Yes, reporters are on someone’s side in this conflict in Libya. Reporters are, and by all accounts should be, on the side of the Libyan revolutionaries, completely and without hesitation.
Here’s why: Gaddafi will never allow a free press. Period. A new regime in Libya might not allow a free press either but that hasn’t been proven yet. Gaddafi’s antipathy for the press has been proven. Therefore, we, as journalists and consumers of journalism, are firmly against Gaddafi. That must be the case because Gaddafi is one of journalism’s enemies. And to treat him as anything short of an enemy of journalism, and by extension, all forms of free expression, is a disservice to both journalism and democracy. The “view from nowhere,” regularly pummeled as bunk by NYU’s Jay Rosen, is problematic for several reasons. But the worst expression of that all-encompassing naiveté is an even-handed treatment of journalism’s enemies. Even the most obvious and common enemies of journalism, like the Chinese government, the Pentagon and Fox News, are treated as equals in the arena of free expression. But they aren’t equals. They’re saboteurs and propagandists, all of them.
China’s information controls are obvious, though apparently less-so to some news outlets. But the Pentagon spends millions of dollars on propaganda every year, including in the United States, with nary a mention in the press. And Fox News’ entire existence is devoted to sabotaging journalism every second of every day. Yet, so-called mainstream news outlets refuse to even mention these issues. Instead, they treat saboteurs as equals and place their own reporters at the mercy of dictators in an effort to compete with a machine that is trying to destroy them. And that’s because the bottom line is the bottom line. As long as corrupt commercial interests continue to dominate newsroom editorial policy, this situation will only get more dangerous. One day, possibly very soon, we will witness the live death of a well-known western reporter at the hands of a thuggish regime (Daniel Pearl was murdered by criminals – big difference). The hand-wringing that will follow will be replete with tears and honorariums to the deceased and all who ply the trade. But it will be disingenuous because profit will trump safety again the very next day.
The show must go on and it will. Businesses cater to the people who pay the bills. Right now, big business pays the bills in journalism. Until that financial model changes, this will only get more dangerous until the ultimate sacrifice is made, not to mention the self-censorship engendered by deference to commercial interests. Collective journalism, crowd-funding and other initiatives like hyper-local are good additions to the mix. But reporters in those situations, often freelancers and unaffiliated stringers, are even more exposed and their stories rarely dent the rarified air of mainstream media. People already pay for cable or satellite TV, for subscription newspapers and magazines, and for tablet and mobile access to information. And most of those services aren’t cheap.
If you were told you could pay a few dollars per month for TV news (over all platforms) that never runs commercials, never censors itself for the sake of an advertiser or political ally, always sources its own reporting, constantly reveals its editorial process, runs corrections every hour and is transparent in how it maintains a firewall between finance and editorial, would you sign up? Would you be part of the solution by supporting an end-around on the traditional financial models and creating a people’s outlet that knows what side it’s on? If good journalism is important to you in the slightest, please take this very short, anonymous survey and comment frequently. If you want to reform reporting across the board and refocus its priorities on the people, the survey is a good place to start. Thank you.