Thursday, July 8, 2010

Of Media Ethics and Access

So I've still been thinking about the whole General Stanley McChrystal affair. No, not about the vibrancy of American democracy that has the confidence to remove a celebrated (and some believed indispensible) soldier getting too big for his britches (they've done it before). No, not even about what it means for the US' Afghanistan adventure that seems best to be characterized as floundering. No, what I have been thinking about is the whole rigmarole around the fact that it was a freelance contributor writing in a non-mainstream publication (at least in the sense of it not being one of the foremost purveyors of political coverage in the US) that managed to pull off the biggest scoop of the year. And its parallels for the media in Pakistan.

If you haven't followed the whole media circus after the story broke in Rolling Stone, briefly, Michael Hastings the freelancer whose reporting of McChrystal's and his aides' impertinent remarks about the American civilian leadership and civilian control over the armed forces led to the general's fall, was vilified by some big names within the mainstream media. Among them New York Times pundit David Brooks and CBS News' Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan. Their contention, in a nutshell, was that he had 1) broken an unspoken code of conduct whereby embarrassing things about the American military were never published / broadcast and 2) he had had the freedom to report such things because he was only doing a one-off report and was not looking to gain repeated access to such high level operatives. 

Of course such mealy mouthedness has received a suitable backlash from other people within the American media as well. You can read a from-the-gut visceral response to Lara Logan by Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone (appropriately titled "Lara Logan, You Suck") as well as Amy Davidson's  defence of Matt Taibi's rant here in the The New Yorker. But perhaps the most telling of all was this op-ed by Frank Rich in the New York Times titled "The 36 Hours That Shook Washington" which encapsulated the issue at the heart of the media flap:

"There were few laughs in the 36 hours of tumult, but Jon Stewart captured them with a montage of cable-news talking heads expressing repeated shock that an interloper from a rock ’n’ roll magazine could gain access to the war command and induce it to speak with self-immolating candor. Politico theorized that Hastings had pulled off his impertinent coup because he was a freelance journalist rather than a beat reporter, and so could risk “burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.”
That sentence was edited out of the article — in a routine updating, said Politico — after the blogger Andrew Sullivan highlighted it as a devastating indictment of a Washington media elite too cozy with and protective of its sources to report the unvarnished news. In any event, Politico had the big picture right. It’s the Hastings-esque outsiders with no fear of burning bridges who have often uncovered the epochal stories missed by those with high-level access. Woodward and Bernstein were young local reporters, nowhere near the White House beat, when they cracked Watergate. Seymour Hersh was a freelancer when he broke My Lai. It was uncelebrated reporters in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, not journalistic stars courted by Scooter and Wolfowitz, who mined low-level agency hands to challenge the “slam-dunk” W.M.D. intelligence in the run-up to Iraq."

The more I think about it, the more I believe there are some real lessons to be learnt from this. Now, the first part of Hastings' denigrators' contentions against him probably tells you more about the mindset of the mainstream US media (and a certain sort of "patriotic" journalist anywhere) than anything else. But specifically it is the latter contention that Pakistani journalists might do well to think about, since it encompasses even sincere, generally truthful journalists: the desire - in the paraphrased words of Politico - "not to burn bridges" with important contacts. How many of us compromise on the truth to preserve our "access" to the corridors of power?

Certainly, in a country such as Pakistan where information - even straightforward information - is difficult to get from official sources, reporters must mine contacts within power. But where exactly does one draw the line? Particularly if one's own source could be undermined through the information one has picked up. Of course, the issue of media owners' vested interests in certain centres of power is also inextricably intertwined with this issue. Food for thought.


Rehman said...

You guys are doing fine job. But think about the media monopoly and cartelization of news in Pakistan that has made working journalists helpless!

Rehman said...

If you dare to publish... I want to add to my previous comment: the issue of journalist Habib R. Sulemani is an example of "media monopoly" and "cartelization of news" in the "democratic" Pakistan today!

Anonymous said...

so much for the free media

CNN Senior Editor Fired for tweeting that she had respect for the dead Hezbollah leader

It really is a shame that a journalist is forced NOT to have his/her own opinion and should also server as a eyeopener for all the western apologists who visit this blog

and you must remember

in America the jews get you by the balls very true indeed

Anonymous said...

hm. i guess the choice is between being a 'western apologist' or a bigot then. tough. eeniee meeniee mineey moee...

Rehman said...

I read in the papers today: CNN has sacked its senior editor of Middle East affairs just for a simplistic statement about a deceased leader of Hezbollah. I wonder, there are criminal allegations, including patronizing terrorism, against a former Resident Editor of a major English language newspaper in Islamabad… but, instead of proper investigation into the matter, the newspaper has designated the accused it’s Chief Editor, based in Karachi… where are professional ethics? What will Mr Jinnah think about ‘criminals’ in journalism?

Cafe Pyala! Thanks for making a difference in the cyberspace. Be blessed.

Anonymous said...

yes, great news indeed that CNN sacked its editor because Hezbollah can't be good, Palestinians can't be Good, Hamas can't be Good, Islam can't be Good and must be demonized at all costs and that is the official policy of CNN and other zionist mouth pieces
If these are the ethics of western media than I would say that Pakistani media is much better, at-least it isn't forcing everyone to tow the same propagandist line

and its high time that you also get you name changes from Rehman to Ram because those who you are trying to appease won't accept you wholeheartedly until and unless you are ready to forgo the last (symbolic) shred of Islam from yourself

Anonymous said...

who is cnn to declare that Hezbollah is a terrorist and israel isn't?

would cnn have sacked their editor if she had give the same statement about the butcher of Sabra and Shatila or any other right wing terrorist of israel ? of-course no

guys open your eyes and realize that there is a hidden zionist monster behind the sugar coated faces that you see

Anonymous said...

well, firstly, anything even mildly damning of the army in our case would be instantly termed a security threat and an attempt to destabilize pakistan, because, as we all know, pak army IS pakistan, the rest of us are just roughing it out.

secondly, our generals/politicians would deny it outright and file a 2 billion rupee defamation case against the poor chap who filed this report, besides him and his family being court martialled privately.

i was actually SHOCKED that general mcchrystal did not even try to retract his statements or attempt to explain his position...

aynalif said...

Anon 10:42 sure sounds like Zaid Hamid! But I agree that if Octavia Nasr had praised an Israeli leader she would never have been fired.

@Anon 12:22 - you are being too generous - anyone in Pakistan speaking against the army or ISI would disappear.

Rehman said...

"Anonymous"... I'm laughing out load!