Principles matter, even if they aren’t practiced

December 10, 2007

I’ve just come back from Buenos Aires, where I gave a talk on threats to ethical journalism to a conference of Argentine journalists and students. It was pretty absurd. Not because the topic isn’t worthwhile, or because the audience wasn’t impeccably qualified and passionately committed.

But because I had the audacity to lecture the heirs to a journalistic tradition hardened by an oppression I could barely imagine. Thirty years ago, Argentine reporters were routinely harassed, jailed, driven into exile; some disappeared, murdered. At a conference in Miami last year one recalled coming to work one morning and noticing an empty desk. Nobody explained what happened to his colleague; no explanation was necessary.

So there I was at a conference whose participants included a Chilean journalist who had been tortured after exposing key figures in the Pinochet dictatorship for looting the public till. The worst I had ever suffered in three decades in newsrooms had been harsh language, a hit to advertising revenue, high turnover among supposed friends. Yet I was an expert on contemporary dangers to honest, aggressive, fearless journalism.

It was ridiculous. But it wasn’t unusual. We Americans spend a lot of time preaching to the rest of the world, and in that regard U.S. journalists are good Americans.

Some weeks before, I attended an awards banquet in Washington sponsored by the International Center for Journalism. It’s a terrific outfit, which raises money here and spends it fostering free speech and principled journalism abroad.

There we were on an autumn evening, in a spacious atrium on Pennsylvania Avenue within spitting distance of the White House. We were honoring a blogger from Cairo who’s in danger for blowing the whistle on torture by an Egyptian government that is one of this country’s stalwart pals, a reporter from Burma who lost her job for rattling the thugs who run that country, a Russian financial editor whose staff investigates fat-cat oligarchs and who attends not just news meetings but the funerals of slain friends.

They are young and brave. From our side, leading the tributes was emcee George Stephanopolous, the former Bill Clinton cupbearer who fell out with our ruling junta and was packed off to hard labor as a top-dollar newscaster with ABC. The keynoter was longtime NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who after a career as an eight-figure TV news reader is making another bundle writing history lite. Brokaw was introduced with good-natured jibes by CBS rival Bob Schieffer  both of them decent and amiable stars of the small screen whose glittering careers in news kept well away from any vengeful oligarchs.

And what, exactly, entitled them to praise these foreigners, who literally risk imprisonment or death?

The irony was that these eminences of our media establishment were gathered to honor journalists who routinely defy their own media establishments. After all, each of those countries has many other journalists, the ones who cover the press conferences, rewrite the official lines, anchor the newscasts, keep the questions respectful – but they’re ones we would never think to honor.

Does this country have journalists who are the U.S. equivalents of the foreigners we were toasting? Sure, but they’re too extreme, too shrill, too disrespectful and too against-the-grain to ever be feted by the worthies gathered in that vast room. In this country, independent voices aren’t silenced; they’re ignored.

So as in other realms, the example others associate with us far exceeds the reality. The honorees that night in Washington — with former Washington Post chief Ben Bradlee on hand — paid homage to Watergate, the mythic moment when truth toppled power. Watergate was why the Russian got into journalism, why the Burmese woman got into journalism. (Hell, it’s why I got into journalism.)

Foreign journalists take inspiration from values that we preach, even when we don’t practice them all that often. The idea of independent truth-seeking in the public interest – the ethical core of contemporary journalism — is a breathtaking concept in places were the press is under unrelenting assault.

But we too stand on the shoulders of that tradition of adversarialism and defiance, one we so rarely emulate. Those who listen to our preachings forgive us our failure to keep the promise that inspires them.

They listen to us out of honor for the promise, not because they’re foolish enough to believe we fulfill it.

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