Targeting Journalists

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

It’s not been a good time to be a journalist. Outside the United States, reporters literally take their lives into their own hands to cover dangerous stories. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 55 journalists died in 2006, a steady increase over the last several years. The mafia-style hit of Anna Politkovskaya in Russia made headlines. Less well publicized were the deaths of 32 journalists in Iraq. More journalists have died in Iraq than in any other country or any other conflict since CPJ has been collecting statistics. Nor was Latin America particularly safe, as Hernán Uribe writes in a recent Americas Program report.

In the United States, journalists don’t have to worry so much about losing their lives as losing their jobs. As John Nichols chronicles in a recent piece in The Nation, falling circulation has sent newspapers into a slow death spiral. They are shedding staff at a furious rate. At least 34,000 newspaper journalists have lost their jobs in the last five years. The decline of foreign affairs reporting, even at this time of heightened concern over Iraq, has been particularly distressing. The number of U.S. foreign correspondents has dropped by about 15% since 2000 and the coverage of international topics on front pages of American newspapers dropped from 27% in 1987 to 21% in 2003 to a dismal 14% in 2004.

Then there’s the credibility issue. Key journalists, like Judith Miller, have deserved the criticism they’ve received for the way they framed the news leading up to the Iraq War to lend credence to the U.S. invasion. Other journalists have more directly let the U.S. government grease their palms. Ten Miami Herald journalists took dollars from Washington to appear on Radio Martí and TV Martí, anti-Castro propaganda stations run by the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting. For every Seymour Hersh out there plugging away at investigative stories, there’s an Armstrong Williams or a Maggie Gallagher taking kickbacks from the U.S. government for their pro-administration sermonizing.

It’s tough to find a kind word for journalists these days. The right complains about the “liberal media.” The left detects a corporate bias. Since the early 1980s, the public in general has “come to view the news media as less professional, less accurate, less caring and less moral,” according to the State of the News Media 2006 report.

Some of the problem lies with the unspoken assumptions that shape reporting. At an Eisenhower Foundation symposium in December, Ray Suarez gave an excellent presentation on how journalists portray race and class in ways that reinforce, rather than challenge, the assumptions of the audience. Journalists and their editors not surprisingly tend to reflect their own socioeconomic position, and, as Suarez points out, their “distaste for and condescension toward poor people” can often be “jawdroppingly obvious.” In foreign coverage, the bias is even more invisible, at least to U.S. audiences. American journalists simply project U.S. “national interest”—what’s best for Washington rather than, say, the people of Iraq or the health of international institutions or the state of the global environment—and American readers see nothing amiss.

These socioeconomic and geopolitical assumptions largely operate in the background. From day to day, however, the average reporter is just struggling to meet a deadline. With cutbacks in the newsroom, the assembly line speed has been cranked up a notch, and each individual reporter has to produce more in less time. It’s no surprise that they don’t have the time or energy to go beyond their comfort zone to interview people not in their electronic Rolodex or dig deeper behind a facile administration comment.

But there’s hope. We can work with the media to improve its coverage of foreign affairs.

On March 2, Foreign Policy In Focus will be hosting a media training seminar. Reporters and editors from AlterNet, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Harpers, the Institute for Public Accuracy, America Blog,, and other media outlets will tell you how to make your media opportunities and strategies more effective. There will be sessions on radio, television, and print media, as well as op-ed writing and foreign policy messaging and outreach. To register, click here. This is our fourth media training workshop, and it’s open to anyone working on foreign policy issues, as well as communications staff helping foreign policy experts get media exposure.

Jimmy and George and Jong

Jimmy Carter has not exactly been a media darling since the publication of his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. In addition to the expected denunciations from Alan Dershowitz and others, The New York Times criticized the ex-president for “tone deafness about Israel and Jews” and The Economist called the book “simplistic.”

But as FPIF contributor Ronald Bruce St John points out in his latest commentary, Apartheid By Any Other Name, the media has largely skipped over the substance of Carter’s argument and completely ignored the fact that many Israelis have used “apartheid” to describe the official state policy toward Palestinians. “That which we call apartheid, to echo Shakespeare, by any other name would smell as rotten,” St John writes. “Israeli policy in the West Bank is a form of apartheid in intent and implementation. Ethnic-based, as opposed to race-based, it shares an important characteristic with the South African model. Both have their genesis in the desire by the minority to control land occupied by the majority. To achieve this result, the Israelis have imposed a legal framework on the Palestinians in the West Bank that ensures perpetual economic, political, and social dominance.”

The media has traditionally had a field day with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il—his height, his hairdo, his taste in movies. But why has the press missed the separated-at-birth story that’s right under their noses? As I write in a commentary originally published in, the two leaders not only share a similar background but a preference for rash policy decisions. “But let’s be clear,” I argue. “Sitting on top of an enormous collection of nuclear warheads and with a conventional army that outstrips the combined efforts of all possible adversaries, George W. Bush is the far more dangerous man.”

Suppress the Urge to Surge

The United States, Great Britain, and Israel have all attempted to exert their will over other countries by using massive force. As FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan writes, this raining down of destruction has largely failed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Military planners should not underestimate the capacity of a people to unite in order to expel the foreigner.

The toll, however, has been immense. “The Israelis bombed Lebanon back to the Stone Age, and three-decade old cluster weapons are still blowing up Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians,” Hallinan writes. “Iraq may find it harder to recover from its ‘liberation’ than it did from the Mongol invasions. We cannot ‘win,’ but like the Romans of old, we can sow the earth with salt. What we reap will not be acquiescence or compliance, however.”

Indeed, what we reap with the Vishnu strategy is simply fiercer determination to resist. Worse: some groups actively hope for the United States to pour money into the military and amplify terrorist recruitment by bombing Islamic countries. “Al-Qaida’s master strategists have manipulated Bush like a marionette,” FPIF contributor Adam Elkus writes in Surging Right into Bin Laden’s Hands. “Instead of cutting his losses and withdrawing from Iraq—or critically re-examining the failures of the American intervention in Afghanistan—Bush continues blindly to throw more resources into battle, believing that the United States simply lacks ‘a will to win.’”

FPIF, February 5, 2007

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