Xenophobia and self-censorship bedevil the news media. It begins and ends with Matt Drudge, the blogger who became indespensible after sleepy Washington reporters caught his scoop on the president’s affair with that woman, Miss Lewinski.
Drudge recently ran a photo of showing presidential candidate Barack Obama wearing a Somali costume, including a turban, during a visit to Kenya. Any xenophobe or Homeland Security official who misses that photo’s political potential should be euthanized.
The turban “proves” what wingnuts never tire of claiming: Barack Hussein Obama is the Meccan Candidate, a faux Christian son of a Kenyan Muslim who will betray this country into radical Islamist hands at the flip of a veiled Queen of Diamonds.
Those kooks aside, when news stories assume the photo defames Obama, they miss the larger question: Regardless of source and intent, why in God’s name — Ram, Yahweh, Jehovah, Lord, Father, Allah — is it defamatory to be called a Muslim?
A related journalistic fiasco is closer to home. Jaded national reporters encountered Cincinnati’s representative Republican, WLW talk show host Bill Cunningham. It was the perfect pissing match. Willie won.
Cunningham warmed up a John McCain rally in OTR’s Memorial Hall with attacks on the national news media and repeated references to Barack Hussein Obama as a Daly machine “hack” from Chicago. It was classic Willie, and local Republican stars loved it. McCain later repudiated the comments.
Fiasco collapsed into farce. What at worst should have been a one-day story became became international news. Papers all over the world reported it. Al-Jazeera’s English-language Web site reported it. NPR interviewed Cunningham. The fuss over the fuss reached the Enquirer front page. Big goddman deal.
Three months ago, CityBeat reported how Cunningham loves to use Barack Hussein Obama’s middle name, with its associations with Saddam Hussein, Islamist terror and xenophobia. Republicans who asked him to warm up that McCain crowd knew it.
Given how Willie’s remarks and McCain’s response excited elite political reporters, imagine what they would have written if they’d also read CityBeat’s report that Willie used to add “Muhammed” erroneously to Obama’s middle name.
It’s as if Cunningham is channeling Marge Schott’s success at elevating Cincinnati’s national prestige. It must have been a slow news day, even by mind-numbing campaign standards. Was McCain’s reaction newsworthy?
Maybe, but only if we knew what he repudiated. Was it the “hack” accusation against a fellow senator or the repeated references to Hussein?
Al-Jazeera’s coverage raises another question. Is WLW’s Cunningham giving aid and comfort to Al-Jazeera audiences who take more than verbal shots at Americans? Or should we all take a deep breath, relax and accept Cunningham as the Cincinnatian who best fulfills H.L. Mencken’s aphorism: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
Now back to drudgereport.com and another ethical issue raised by news judgment. My summary draws on London dailies and Ministry of Defense statements.
Prince Harry publicly threatened to resign his commission if he were denied a combat assignment as leader of a troop of lightly armored Scimitar recon vehicles. Military officials rejected deployment to Iraq as too dangerous.
Retrained as a forward air controller, he was sent to Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province, where British units are in the thick of close-quarter fighting against the Taliban. He went out in mid-December for a four-month tour.
In London, the MoD asked scores of senior British print and broadcast editors and representatives of Associated Press, Reuters and CNN to hold the story until Harry was back in England. MoD was worried that publicity would raise the risks for Harry and his men.
In return for voluntary self-censorship, everyone would get photos, video and copy from a pool of reporters, photographers and videographers embedded with the prince’s unit.
British press law is far more restrictive than ours, and “guidance” from military and palace authorities is not uncommon. MoD did not respond to my question: Was a D-notice, legally banning reporting of his deployment, the stated or implied alternative?
Everyone, including wildly competitive Brits, agreed to MoD terms, expecting the “understanding” to evaporate quickly. It lasted until late February, when Drudge reported that Harry was in combat.
Asked whether he knew about or was party of the “understanding,” Drudge did not respond. Rather, it appears he was the only person to understand the implications of a story about Harry in an Australian gossip mag, New Idea.
Alerted by journalists to the broken embargo, MoD pulled Harry out of combat and released its pool materials and an orgy of adoring coverage. Brits also indulged an orgy of finger-pointing at Drudge while praising themselves for restraint.
Deciphering discreet asterisks, it appears Harry was “fucking pissed.” Soldiering was his lifetime ambition, it was the closest he’d had to a “normal” life and he was enjoying the comradeship.
What about the ethics of self-censorship? It’s nasty, corrosive and sometimes the lesser of apparent evils. We self-censor all of the time.
Rarely do we tell you that a local death was suicide because of the religious/social/family stigma. We withhold names of men and women who say they're victims of sex crimes, although victims of other violent crimes routinely are identified.
We don’t tell you that Bush is headed for Thanksgiving dinner in Baghdad or that troops will land in Somalia. If asked, we usually hold stories on kidnappings. We rarely show you our photos of the results of violence, whether a fatal trench collapse, a shooting or road crash.
If we knew it, we’d withhold the formula used for a celebrity suicide cocktail, a home-made bomb, or how to buy a fully automatic firearm illegally. We routinely withhold names of people who die violently — homicides or accidents — until families are informed.
In most of these situations, news media behave similarly, whether by request or tradition.
We balance our commitment to informing you against harm our story or images might do. It’s news judgment informed by ethics. We look at the generally accepted journalism standards implicated, the foreseeable consequences, and decide whether that harm is justifiable. We sometimes consider potential for backlash, if readers, viewers or listeners will be so angered by what appears to be a breach of propriety that they turn elsewhere for their news (and diminish our audiences and advertising income on which we depend for survival, if not profitability.)
Many times, you're denied information you might want because we anticipate greater and harm than benefits. When we consider the harm we might do, we ask whether it is justifiable and to whom.
• News tip: Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College has a campus in Jerusalem. It is, in large part, a Jewish serminary. How have HUC students, faculty and staff responded to massacre at Orthodox Jewish seminary elsewhere in the city?
• Missing from later versions of Enquirer election coverage of the Black-Wulsin contest: “Her 2006 loss inspired fellow Indian Hill resident Black, 59, an estate and probate attorney, to seek the Democratic nomination himself, even though he supported Wulsin in the 2006 race. He quickly mounted a relentless attack on Wulsin, with mailings and TV ads that called her unethical for her work with the Heimlich Institute during a controversial experiment on the use of malaria to treat AIDS.” (Courtesy Gannett’s Chillicothe Gazette that apparently didn’t get the message...)
• In its Sunday editorial, The Enquirer said it could not support last week’s Cincinnati school levy. Why not say, “We oppose the levy and here’s why”?
• Is there anything so tiresome as bloggers saying someone “lied” or “falsely” said/reported something? Both suggest intent. Unless the blog shows convincing evidence of malign motive, why not “mistakenly” or “erroneously”?
• Read Victor Navasky’s elegant review in The Nation of Anthony Lewis’s fine new book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.
• Schadenfreude: editorandpublishercom reports that a longtime fixture on the Religious Right and most recently Bush’s liasison to conservative and religious groups resigned after admitting plagiarism. White House aide Timothy S. Goeglein used other people’s work in 20 columns of 38 he sent to his hometown paper, The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, since 2000. During those years, he was spokesman for Gary Bauer’s run at the presidential nomination and a top aide to Karl Rove before becoming a Bush gofer. Nancy Nall, a former News-Sentinel columnist whose blog calls Goeglein’s writing “drippy and awful,” says she caught him when his latest column drew her suspicion. She searched the Internet and found the original material in The Dartmouth Review. That began the search, and other papers are reporting plagiarism in his contributions to their pages. examiner.com reports “Goeglein is still embraced by the conservative community. At the weekly meeting of center-right leaders at American for Tax Reform on Wednesday morning, he received three rounds of applause from the packed room, including one standing ovation, as he asked for their forgiveness.” You gotta love those values.
• Frontiers of Free Exercise of Religion: London’s Daily Telegraph says “Denmark's security services have provided protection to namesakes of the Danish cartoonist behind controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. There are 82 Kurt Westergaards living in Denmark but only one of them is the man whose life is under daily threat because of his caricatures of the founder of Islam. However, some of other 81 "Kurts" scattered across Denmark have also received mistaken identity death threats because they share the same name as the illustrator. One, a businessman from the Danish town of Aabenraa, has been offered protection by Denmark's intelligence agency ... after receiving multiple death threats. ‘The worst thing was that they also called my three children. They wanted to kidnap my family and murder me,’ he said.”
• New conventional wisdom: Reporters have been too easy on Obama and too hard on Clinton. Newer conventional wisdom: Reporters are turning on Obama and going easy on Clinton. Newest? Not yet in.
CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: firstname.lastname@example.org