Responsible Journalism

June 2005


We live in a time of "responsible journalism" where it is evidently more important for the press to be "responsible" than it is for the press to publish the truth.

A few weeks ago, NEWSWEEK magazine published an article critical of the US Military's handling of prisoners in custody in Guantanamo, Cuba. They cited, among other abuses, mishandling the Islamic Holy book, the Q'ran. Then, bowing to extreme pressure from the US administration, NEWSWEEK retracted the story. Now, we find out that the story was actually true, and that the very people who called foul the loudest when the original article was published undoubtedly knew it to have been true.

What is going on here? Surely, what is important here is not that a news organization published something to which some people abroad took exception, resulting in a riot, during which some people died. In the first place, it is not the responsibility of journalists to anticipate the possible reaction of people at large and to take care never to publish anything that would upset or alarm some of those people. In the second place, the deaths that occurred were not the result of their anger, but of the interaction of the rioters and the government security forces who acted (in accordance with US policy -- the theory that the post-invasion Afghanistan government operated independently from Washington is at least highly suspect) to quell the riot. The only responsibility of good journalists is to tell the truth, as best they know it, especially when it disturbs the powerful: "It is the business of journalism to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable" -- HL Mencken.

The biggest problem with the whole story is that our government even asked NEWSWEEK to be "responsible" and to retract the story about military police maltreating prisoners in their care. In George Orwell's 1984 ( the principal character, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth, whose purpose is to lie to the people and prevent people from accessing any information critical of the government -- to alter what is true to be consistent with the facts as the leaders wish them to have been. How can we view the government's objections to this story and their call for its retraction as anything other than this kind of information malfeasance?

As this new story about the truth of the retracted NEWSWEEK report plays out in the media, the real issues are skirted and almost all of the discussion is given over to various fake issues. This is no accident. This is a further example of "responsible" journalism. It is as if, when a newspaper reported that Jews were being taken from their homes in Germany in 1938, the press completely ignored the fact that these people were innocent of any crimes (being guilty only of being Jews) and concentrated instead on stories of evil Jews who fought with and injured saintly arresting policemen. The journalists of Nazi Germany were "responsible" and reported what they were told. If they inadvertently printed something critical of something the government did, such as maltreatment of prisoners in concentration camps, they had to retract the story (or face closure). This kind of "cooperation" between the press and the government is always wrong.

We should not stand for this kind of "responsible" journalism in this country. People responsible for it should be fired. This is not a liberal/conservative controversy. Saying that the government should refrain from getting maligned in the press by the simple expedient of not doing things that are morally reprehensible is about as "conservative" as you can be. Saying that we have a duty to uphold the Constitutional Right of free speech and that a free and vigorous press is a prerequisite for real democracy is also not an opinion to which only liberals aspire. If we let this go without consequence, it will repeat, increase, and afterwards, we will have no one to complain to when our liberty is only a hazy memory.

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