Tag Archives: journalism

Journalism at risk from surveillance, data collection: UNESCO report

By Julie Posetti
May 3, 2017

The ability of journalists to report without fear is under threat from mass surveillance and data retention. The Conversation

Released this week, my UNESCO report Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age shows that laws protecting journalists and sources globally are not keeping up with the challenges posed by indiscriminate data collection and the spill-over effects of anti-terrorism and national security legislation.

Examining legal changes to how sources are protected across 121 countries between 2007-2015, I found that calls, text messages, and emails made in the process of reporting are increasingly exposed. In particular, they can be caught up in the nets of law enforcement and national security agencies as they trawl for evidence of criminal activity and terrorism, and conduct leak investigations.

Source protection laws should be updated to protect the online communications of journalists and whistleblowers.

If we do not strengthen legal protections and limit the impact of surveillance and data retention, investigative journalism that relies on confidential sources will be difficult to sustain.

New technologies, new problems

Now that simply using mobile technology, email, and social networks may result in a person being caught up in state and corporate surveillance and data mining, the laws protecting sources and journalists are being seriously undermined.

The study found that source protection laws globally are at risk of being:

  • trumped by national security and anti-terrorism legislation that increasingly broadens definitions of “classified information” and limits exceptions for journalistic acts
  • undercut by surveillance – both mass and targeted
  • jeopardised by mandatory data retention policies and pressure applied to third party intermediaries to release data which risks exposing sources
  • outdated when it comes to regulating the collection and use of digital data, such as whether information recorded without consent is admissible in a court case against either a journalist or a source; and whether digitally stored material gathered by journalistic actors is covered by existing source protection laws, and
  • challenged by questions about entitlement to claim protection – as underscored by the questions: “Who is a journalist?” and “What is journalism”?

These threats suggest lawmakers need to think differently when it comes to protecting press freedoms.

In the past, the main concerns of courts and lawmakers was whether a journalist could be legally forced to reveal the confidential source of published information or be the subject of targeted surveillance and search and seizure operations.

Now that data is routinely intercepted and collected, we must find new ways to protect the right of journalists to withhold the identity of their sources.

The Australian metadata threat

Australia’s experience with mandatory metadata collection shows how complicated the question of journalist-source protection can become in a digital era.

The Australian Federal Police recently admitted to illegally accessing an unidentified journalist’s metadata without a warrant.

This breach was possible because of the country’s mandatory data retention law, which requires phone and internet companies to preserve user metadata for two years, even when there is no suspicion of a crime. This includes information such as when a text message was sent and who received it, but not its content.

Advocates of long-term metadata retention, like Australian Attorney General George Brandis, have insisted the law poses no significant threat to privacy or freedom of expression. When the legislation was enacted in March 2015, it included an amendment that requires government agencies to seek a warrant to access journalists’ communications with sources in certain cases.

Transparency, however, is not required. Revelation of the existence (or non-existence) of such a warrant is punishable by a two-year jail term. At no point are journalists nor media organisations advised of such an intervention, and there is no opportunity for them to challenge the issuing of a warrant.

These shortcomings mean the law fails seven out of 11 indicators in UNESCO’s guide for measuring the effectiveness of a country’s legal source protection framework.

In the face of these threats, journalists can take steps to protect their online security and ensure sources have ways to contact them securely. Yet even when they encrypt the content of their source communications, they may neglect the metadata, meaning they still leave behind a digital trail of whom they contacted. This data can easily identify a source, and safeguards against its illegitimate use are frequently limited or non-existent.

Australia’s Press Council chair, professor David Weisbrot has said mandatory data retention legislation risks “crushing” investigative journalism:

I think that whistleblowers who are inside governments or corporations will definitely not come forward because their confidentiality and anonymity will not be guaranteed. If they came forward, a journalist would have to say ‘I have to give you some elaborate instructions to avoid detection: don’t drive to our meeting, don’t carry your cell phone, don’t put this on your computer, handwrite whatever you’re going to give me’.

Australia’s metadata experience shows how legal protections that shield journalists from disclosing confidential sources may be undercut by backdoor access to data.

This also applies to information collected by internet service providers, search engines, and social media platforms. Such companies can, in some circumstances, be compelled by law enforcement to produce electronic records that identify journalists’ sources.

In an interview for the UNESCO study, Privacy International legal officer Tomaso Falchetta said

There is a growing trend of delegation by law enforcement of quasi-judicial responsibilities to Internet and telecommunication companies, including by requiring them to incorporate vulnerabilities in their networks to ensure that they are ‘wire-tap ready’

On World Press Freedom Day, we’d like a little less secrecy, and lot more accountability.

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Julie Posetti is a  Journalism lecturer, University of WollongongThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Rare win for journalism as PR firms overwhelm news

By John Jewell, Cardiff University
October, 2016

White House PR photo of then-president of George W. Bush putting a positive spin on Iraq.

White House PR photo of then-president of George W. Bush putting a positive spin on Iraq.

Recent articles about the public relations firm Bell Pottinger are a stark reminder of the power and pervasiveness of PR in today’s fragmented media landscape.

The Sunday Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that Bell Pottinger was hired by the Pentagon in Washington to coordinate a covert propaganda campaign to boost America’s profile in Iraq following the “end” of hostilities in 2003.

And, earlier this year, South Africa’s Business Day newspaper revealed that the firm had been retained by the scandal-hit billionaire Gupta family to burnish its image after a string of stories accusing it of “state capture” – allegedly using its influence with the president, Jacob Zuma, to advance the family’s business interests.

Bell Pottinger’s former chairman Lord Tim Bell confirmed to the Sunday Times that the firm had been paid US$540m for five contracts with the US government between 2007 and 2011. He said the firm reported to the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council while working on the account. The investigation, “Fake News and False Flags” relied on interviews with a former Bell Pottinger employee, Martin Wells, who claimed that the PR company created short TV reports in the style of Arabic news networks for broadast in Iraq. According to Wells, Bell Pottinger also scripted propagandistic soap operas and distributed fake insurgency videos which could be used to track the people who watched them.

The revelations were a classic example of investigative journalism: painstakingly poring over US Army documents and federal government records as well as Bell Pottinger’s corporate filings. It must be stressed that Bell Pottinger changed ownership after a management buyout in 2012 and that the Iraq unit closed in 2011. The investigation reported that key personnel who worked in the Iraq unit denied allegations about using tracking software.

Lord Bell won acclaim as the man who helped the Conservatives win general elections under Margaret Thatcher – he became known as Thatcher’s PR “guru” – which helped him secure a knighthood in 1991. Though it’s worth pointing out he was made a life peer by Tony Blair in 1998. His former firm has history with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In 2011, while he was still in charge, an investigation revealed the continuing close links between the firm and the Conservative Party.

Bell Pottinger helped Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives win three elections.
Gerald Penny AP/Press Association Images

Winning friends and influencing people

“Fake News and False Flags” is the latest indication of how nation states use PR firms for their propaganda purposes during wartime or times of crisis. Perhaps the most famous example of this practice occurred around the time of the first Gulf war in 1990-91 when Citizens for a Free Kuwait – a “human rights agency” created and financed entirely by Kuwait’s ruling elite to promote its interests in the US – retained Hill & Knowlton, at that time the world’s largest PR firm.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and H&K’s brief was to persuade US citizens that American military involvement in the Gulf was vital to save a fledgling democracy from the hands of a brutal dictator. As John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton point out in their book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You – Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, H&K produced dozens of video news releases for consumption by the US media, and – through them – the American public. As they wrote, “TV stations and networks simply fed the carefully crafted propaganda to unwitting viewers, who assumed they were watching ‘real’ journalism.”

But by far the greatest public relations coup occurred when Nayirah, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, appeared before a public hearing of Congress’s Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990. She tearfully told of atrocities committed by Iraqi troops who had entered a Kuwaiti hospital with guns and took babies out of incubators leaving them to die “on the cold floor”.

In the run up to war, then president George HW Bush quoted Nayirah’s testimony repeatedly. As Mitchel Cohen wrote years later, six times in one month the then president referred to “… 312 premature babies at Kuwait City’s maternity hospital who died after Iraqi soldiers stole their incubators and left the infants on the floor.”

Bush senior invoked Hitler, while pro-war senators raised the ghosts of World War I by referencing “bayoneting babies”. But there were elements of this story that later came into question. Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who had – it was repeatedly alleged – been coached in what “even the Kuwaitis’ own investigators later confirmed was false testimony”.

Working with the dark side

The scale and power of the public relations industry is becoming almost overwhelming for journalism. According to the Public Relations and Communications Association the PR industry is worth £12.9 billion in the UK, £3 billion more than in 2013. The PR census of 2016 also disclosed that there were 83,000 employees in the industry in the UK – up from 62,000 in 2013. This is important because, as media commentator Roy Greenslade illustrates, the findings confirm that there are far more PR workers than journalists in Britain.

This is alarming because it means PR firms will become ever more adept at manipulating an increasingly under-powered media to ensure their content appears. Fewer and fewer journalists have the time or opportunity to research their own stories or to check press releases for inaccuracies.

I have written here about how useless it is to simply reject PR as the “dark arts” when its presence in modern journalism is so complete and involved. There has to be a working relationship – and the obvious and only way forward for journalism is to attempt to set the parameters of the relationship, though as is clear, that is increasingly becoming more difficult.

Thank goodness, then, for the Sunday Times, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others like them for the work they continue to do.

Creative Commons

The Conversation

John Jewell is Director of Undergraduate Studies, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, at Cardiff University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Not all things in journalism are equal

Journalists and Donald Trump. Photo:Don Vadon, Creative Commons

Journalists and Donald Trump. Photo:Don Vadon, Creative Commons

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
September 17, 2010

Several years ago, then CNN journalist Campbell Brown uttered what I’ve always called the “Campbell dictum” on reporting:

“If I interview two politicians, and one says it’s raining and one says it’s sunny and I look outside and it’s raining, I’m not going to report that it’s raining but it might also be sunny. I’m going to report that it’s raining.”

I would add, a journalist’s duty is then to point out the “sunny” politician was lying and trying to mislead the public.

There is a fallacy that when a journalist points out a lie or a misstatement during an interview on TV or radio, or in a newspaper or digital story, that reporter is biased against the individual being interviewed. Instead, the fallacy goes, the reporter should just let that person rattle on without bothering to correct anything, and leave it up to the audience or readers to make up their own minds about the truth, or the lack thereof.

New York Times Pulitzer-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof also raised this issue in a recent column. ““Is it journalistic malpractice to quote each side and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions, even if one side seems to fabricate facts or make ludicrous comments?” he wrote.

Yes, it is.

This “he said, she said” journalism is a main reason that public trust in the 4th Estate has dropped so dramatically. Our job as journalists is to ask a question and then follow up on any answer we receive with more questions. Not just ask one, hear the response, and move on regardless of its veracity. (If you want to see how to not ask follow-up questions, see Matt Lauer’s recent interview of Donald Trump.)

Which brings us, as all things do in the United States these days, to Donald Trump, and the challenge of reporting on someone who is a born liar. Because that it what he is: a liar, and a fraud and a bully, as Nevada Senator Harry Reid described him. Trump and his campaign team daily speak lies or issue press releases so filled with lies and misinformation that it boggles the mind. How does the journalism media cover this?

Donald Trump is aware of the journalistic conundrum, and has been trying to “play the referee,” as they say, before the upcoming political debates to push the media and the moderators to not challenge him when he lies and misinforms, and let him say what he wants.

That would be a serious mistake, both for journalism and for the country.

To quote Kristof again, “We owe it to our readers to signal when we’re writing about a crackpot. Even if he’s a presidential candidate. No, especially when he’s a presidential candidate.”

It’s not that Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is a straight-shooter all of the time. Clinton stretches the truth and tries to avoid it at times (and has been hit with a barrage of media when she does), but Donald Trump drives a bulldozer through the truth.

Media, and cable news media in particular, created Donald Trump by giving him unfettered access to TV, unhindered by actual reporting. A recent piece in Politico by Campbell Brown noted that cable news executives were so seduced by how Trump was driving up the ratings that they really didn’t care if he was held to task for his repeated lies and misstatements. Producers were ordered to air Trump rallies live and reporters were basically left on the sidelines.

How do journalists now hold an obvious liar and fabricator to task when they’ve let him skate for so long that actually doing the job means risking being called biased?

When we abdicate our duty as journalists to thoroughly question people in power or who want power, we are  undermining democracy and putting the country in peril.

Comedian Samantha Bee addressed this on her show recently.

“Why can’t the media just tell us what’s true and what’s bullshit?” Bee asked. Her show then aired a clip of NBC host Chris Mathews saying it’s hard to call someone a liar because, “It sounds like an opinion when you do that.”

Bee’s reply: “Calling a liar a liar isn’t an opinion if you can prove it. That’s what we call a fact.”

Indeed. And it is time more in the journalism media begin to state the facts about Donald Trump’s lies, because they can be proven.

One last note. I’m at the Online News Association conference in Denver this week and had a long talk with a friend who has been both a journalist and an educator.

“It’s the first time in my life that I feel ashamed to say I’m a journalist,” she told me, “But if this year has taught us anything, it’s that the way we cover campaigns is broken.”

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

~~~

LINKS

Samantha Bee on fact-checking Trump’s campaign: “Calling a liar a liar isn’t an opinion if you can prove it
http://www.vox.com/2016/9/13/12903960/donald-trump-fact-check-samantha-bee

When a Crackpot Runs for President, by Nicholas Kristof:

Why I Blame TV for Trump:
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/2016-donald-trump-blame-tv-cable-news-media-campbell-brown-campaign-cnn-fox-msnbc-21383

 

 

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

 

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The Urgency of Now

Wynton Marsalis, with long time ensemble member, drummer Ali Jackson, in the background. Frank Stewart, publicity photo

Wynton Marsalis, with long time ensemble member, drummer Ali Jackson, in the background. Frank Stewart, publicity photo

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
September 12, 2016

Now and then, in the normal crazy routine of life, you get a chance to experience something special, something out of the ordinary. Something, well, real. This past Saturday night presented just that kind of opportunity.

I was in Boston for the 100th anniversary celebration of the Pulitzer Prizes, which honour the best writing in American journalism, photography, poetry, biography, history, drama and fiction. There is also a prize for music, and that was what Saturday evening was all about.

Wynton Marsalis, who won the Pulitzer in 1997 for his composition, Blood in the Fields (the first piece of jazz music to be so honoured), performed with his longtime ensemble. Listening to Marsalis play the trumpet is — for an atheist like me -– as close as you can come to believing there might be a god. Seldom have I heard a musician in live performance whose music leaves me speechless, hardly able to describe its effect on me.

Just as affecting, however, was the conversation Marsalis had with that audience throughout the performance.

The theme of the Pulitzer celebration is a reflection on “Power: Accountability and Abuse.” Marsalis talked about the creation of Blood in the Fields, the importance of jazz, why arts are so essential to the idea of America. He joked about writing a long-form piece of music at a time when our attention spans are shorter than ever. He grew more serious when talking about how music and the arts are the cornerstones of freedom and democracy. His easy-going talk was filled with witty sayings and aphorisms of other great jazz musicians or family members, but always used to drive home the point he wanted to make. He was educating us, but with us barely knowing that was what he was doing.

Several moments stuck with me. He talked about ‘the urgency of now, it’s all that’s important.” It’s all we have, he said. Now, this moment. Even when we talk about the past, it’s only to help us understand now. His other important point was authenticity. And then, putting these ideas into the musical context of the evening, he said this is what all music – and indeed all of humanity – strives to achieve: to be authentic in the now.

When musicians play in the now, there is a feeling that passes among them: they feel the music. They listen to the others, and that listening affects what they play. The authenticity of now, of being real in the moment, is what helps us find meaning. One of his band members illustrated this point by playing, but not listening to the other band members. The result was discordant and harsh.

If I can extrapolate, Marsalis made me realize that this is what is missing most from life around us at this particular moment in history – authenticity in the now.

Here in the United States, we face a presidential election in which both candidates are enormously disliked by the general public. Authenticity is almost completely absent for many Americans, who must, nevertheless, choose someone to lead the country for the next four years. Regardless of what you think of the candidates (and I’ve made my preference for Clinton know in many previous columns) it is hard not to sense a widespread feeling of resignation, a sense of “How did we come to this?” malaise.

Meanwhile, our social and journalism media struggle daily to be authentic, but more often than not fall into a black hole of tropes, conventional wisdom and clichés. More and more media seem deaf to what is really happening, some choosing to be willingly so. Authenticity is as far from their minds as the Earth is from the Sun. They don’t listen to us and, perhaps worse, we don’t listen to each other. We hear only the sound of our own voices.

Which is why, when you have the chance to experience a real sense of the urgency of now and the authenticity that flows from it, you embrace it like a man lost for days in the desert who lunges at water. It revives you. It gives you strength to move forward.

And that is what music and art do for you, Marsalis concluded. In a world that barely pays attention to authenticity, music and drama and writing and painting remain the best way for us to constantly rediscover the urgency of now.

I think that what Marsalis was trying to tell us: that the best way to hold power accountable, and to prevent abuse, is to be in the now, because that is when we are the most aware of life and the meaning of what is happening around us. That is when it is the most difficult for people to lie to us or to lead us astray.

~~~

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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American media shares blame for Iraq fiasco

An explosion rocks Baghdad during air strikes March 21, 2003.REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files

An explosion rocks Baghdad during air strikes March 21, 2003.REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
July 9, 2016

Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry report, on Britain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, provided damning evidence of how the British people were misled by their political leadership, in particular then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. The report was so damning that it bled beyond Britain to “throw shade” (as they say) on the George W. Bush administration in the United States.

After the report was released July 6, there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Bush administration was going to have a war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, and no one was going to stop it. And that the administration would lie, misleading the public, to make it happen. Blair was, in reality, just an erudite pawn of the Bushies, in particular of the Dark Lord, then-Vice-President Dick Cheney.

But once again one of the main actors in this fiasco – a group enormously important in providing the false justification for the war, which in turn led to much of the violence and terrorism in the Middle East today – was hardly, if ever, mentioned.

That group is the American and British media –  the American media in particular.

There is a saying that in times of war “editors grow epaulettes.” In 2002 and 2003, editors and producers at newspapers, web sites, and cable news channels didn’t just grow epaulettes, they practically signed up for active duty.

As the commentary website Truthout said on the 10th anniversary of the war several years ago:

“In the days and weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, corporate media – and even NPR and PBS – were abuzz with the talking points of the Bush Administration, echoing claims that Iraq had its hands on “yellow cake uranium” and that it had a massive arsenal of “weapons of mass destruction.”

Thanks to the media’s repeated claims that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were immediate threats to our nation, in the weeks leading up to the invasion nearly three-quarters of Americans believed the lie promoted by Donald Rumsfeld that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the attacks of 9/11.

Most of America’s media forgot how to be journalists and became cheerleaders instead. This continued long after British newspapers like the Guardian were reporting there were no weapons of mass destruction. This refusal to accurately report the facts lasted so long that almost two years after suspicion was first raised about the Bush administration’s claims about “Yellow-cake uranium” and WMDs, almost 40% of the American public still mistakenly believed that Hussein both had weapons of mass destruction and was involved in the planning of 9/11.

This, sadly, was not the first time the American media were played for suckers by a Bush. In February of 1991, when there was still heated debate taking place in Congress about whether or not to go to war in the Gulf, a young Kuwaiti woman appeared in front of a House committee and said she had seen Iraq soldiers take babies out of incubators in Kuwait City in order to send the machines back to Baghdad for use by Iraqis. The comments inflamed lawmakers.

Meanwhile, at that moment, press releases about this incendiary allegation were flooding news rooms throughout the US.  The media, as one, sprang up in indignation. Story after story ran about the babies in the incubators.

There was only one problem. It wasn’t true. No member of the media had bothered to find out who the young girl was, or where she was from. It turned out she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and that she hadn’t actually seen Iraqi soldiers doing this, in fact she wasn’t even in Kuwait when this was supposed to have happened.

And all those press releases? Well, they had come from Hill-Knowlton, the DC PR firm who had been hired by the Kuwaiti government to lead the media down the primrose path to supporting the war. (The CBC show Fifth Estate later won an international Emmy for its work in exposing this manipulation. You can read the details below in a column I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in September of 2002, “When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators.”)

I remember at the time, so soon after 9/11, there was discussion about the role of journalists. And generally the feeling was that journalists were American citizens first and media people second, and that their duty was to support the country and the president.

How wrong they were.

The first duty of any serious journalist is to the country and its citizens, and that means protecting that country from lies and manipulation by those in power, no matter the cost. Since most American journalists, and certainly almost all mainstream journalists, did not do this, the Bush administration, with the help of their lapdog in England, Tony Blair, was able to launch the world on a road to war that we are still on today.

If American journalists had actually done their jobs, had actually been journalists, and not just bought what the Bush administration said hook, line and sinker, think of how things might be different. If journalists had asked the questions that need to be asked, instead of turning into the cheerleaders that they did, the country (and the world) would have been much better served.

Unfortunately, not much has changed. If war was on the horizon again today, I have few doubts that the epaulettes would appear on the shoulders of editors again. For the sad truth is that far too many American journalists are not interested in bringing truth to the public, but in being popular, well-watched or read, making money and being invited to all the right parties in Washington and New York.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

Related stories on F&O:

Former British Prime Minister, Tony  Blair, delivers a speech following the publication of The Iraq Inquiry Report by John Chilcot, in London, Britain July 6, 2016.    REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/Pool

Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, delivers a speech following the publication of The Iraq Inquiry Report by John Chilcot, in London, Britain July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Rousseau/Pool

Iraq Inquiry: a catalogue of political failure, by  Michael Holden and William James

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s justification, planning and handling of the Iraq War involved a catalogue of failures, a seven-year inquiry concluded July 6 in a scathing verdict on Britain’s role in the conflict.

Links:

The Iraq Inquiry, by Sir John Chilcot: http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/the-report/

How the Media Fueled the War in Iraq, Truth Out: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/15234-how-the-media-fueled-the-war-in-iraq

When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators, by Tom Regan, Christian Science Monitor:
http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0906/p25s02-cogn.html

Media’s failure on Iraq still stings, CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/11/opinion/kurtz-iraq-media-failure/

Iraq War Media Reporting, Journalism and Propaganda, Global Issues:
http://www.globalissues.org/article/461/media-reporting-journalism-and-propaganda

~~~

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

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Commercial journalism can’t die fast enough

TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
May 14, 2016

Friends, North Americans, country men (and women), I come to bury commercial journalism, not to praise it. First of all because there is almost nothing to praise. And unlike Marc Anthony with Caesar, I want to bury it deep in the ground where it belongs. And drive a stake through its heart. And fill its mouth with garlic.

They say we get the government we deserve. The same is true of media. If so, then we are a stupid, shallow people, easily manipulated, poorly informed and a greater danger to democracy that any al-Qaeda or ISIS fighter.

The click-bait story that tells you nothing and is often completely fabricated. The he said-she said interviews that create mountains out of molehills and provide people with a completely false impression of reality. The endless stories about Kardashians – a family that has accomplished little of real value but who are famous for being famous (not to mention their various celebrity clones). Cable networks that create Godzilla-like political candidates or blow up one story into an all-consuming meaningless mess as a way to make money, money, money. The repetition of grossly misreported stories on politics, science, food, medicine, etc., etc.. Websites that exist only to print rumors and lies because they can make money that way. So much dreck, so little substance.

Commercial media – almost all cable TV news networks, most “news” websites and many, many papers – pay little more than lip service to quality journalism in the second decade of the 21 century. There are many reasons why, most of them involving money over quality. Journalism now is a commodity, like shoes, or handbags or dish soap.

Commercial media and their audiences share the blame for this. Media have trained their audiences to expect meaningless, low-quality nonsense. And then when challenged on the inferior quality of their product, their response is often well, that’s what the people want. And they are right – many people want information that entertains, not enlightens, them. The commercial media seldom challenge them with complexity and nuance, as this reduces ratings and advertiser dollars. It is a self-fulfilling loop, both sides feeding off the other. Ignorance blossoms, misinformation spreads, and cunning people like Donald Trump know they can manipulate this system to their benefit.

Trump knows he can lie and lie, and lie about lying, because the commercial media won’t really challenge him on it as long as he keeps helping them make hundreds of millions in profits. He understands the way the game is played better than anyone before him on the GOP side.

There are exceptions in North America. There are still a few quality print newspapers left, and some good magazines. There is almost nothing in the wasteland of TV. And the web has some good options. Radio is largely worse than TV. Not to mention most media is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people or organizations like Disney or General Electric, corporations that make sure the journalism done on their outlets never endangers the bottom line.

But the quality news outlets that remain on TV, radio, and the web in particular have one thing in common – they receive outside support of some kind. Public broadcasters, support by government dollars in Canada, or pledge drives supplementing government dollars in the US, bring us quality radio and TV. Websites like ProPublica do great journalism day after day, but are dependent on support from the public, foundations and donors who want good journalism to survive.

Which brings us to a moment whose time has come, so to speak. Journalism that matters, that makes a difference, that protects democracy and the public (even if they don’t care) can only survive in a non-commercial format. Quality journalism will need to be supported in ways that might seem controversial, but have actually been around for many years, including government supported journalism. Public broadcasters in Canada, the UK and Australia certainly have their problems, but tend to produce the best journalism in their respective countries.

It’s time for the US to look into a similar system. Yes, there will be problems, and no it’s not perfect, and sometimes mistakes will be made. But there will also be a lot of quality journalism done on the left and the right, by reporters who won’t have to worry about their stories being pulled or toned down for fear of what advertisers, or even the government itself, have to say. If more media outlets received government funding, combined with support from the public or foundations, we would have a stronger democracy. I don’t think that better journalism necessarily leads to a better informed public, but it will help reduce the misinformation and manipulation of the system, by unscrupulous vulgarians with small hands, for instance.

But we can’t wait. The problem created by inferior commercial media is dragging down all media. These days journalists rank only higher than child molesters and atheists on public opinion polls. Journalists don’t have to be popular – we’re not the Kardashians. But we should be respected. And until we change the way journalism is done, we won’t win that respect back.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 

 

 

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

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Trying (and Trying) to Get Records From the “Most Transparent Administration”

Reporter's notebook

The ability to get information from the government is essential to holding the people in power accountable.

 

 

 

by Justin Elliott, ProPublica
March 11

Two years ago last month, I filed a public-records request to the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of my reporting into the flawed response to Hurricane Sandy. Then, I waited.

The Freedom of Information Act requires a response within 20 business days, but agencies routinely blow that deadline. Eight months later, ProPublica and NPR published our investigation into the Sandy response, but it did not include any documents from FEMA. The agency had simply never gotten back to me.

Finally, this Feb. 10 — 492 business days past the law’s 20-day deadline — I got a curious phone call from FEMA. The agency was starting a “clean search” for the documents I asked for, because the original search “was not done properly.”

Why?

“I wish I had the answer,” the staffer told me. “There are quite a few cases that this happened to.”

Documents are the lifeblood of investigative journalism, but these problems aren’t of interest only to reporters. The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to deliver on the idea of a government “for and by the people,” whose documents are our documents. The ability to get information from the government is essential to holding the people in power accountable. This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. law, which has been essential in disclosing the torture of detainees after 9/11, decades of misdeeds by the CIA, FBI informants who were allowed to break the law and hundreds of other stories.

President Obama himself waxed poetic about FOIA on his first full day in office in 2009, issuing a statement calling it “the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.” He promised that his would be “the most transparent administration in history.”

But Obama hasn’t delivered. In fact, FOIA has been a disaster under his watch.

Newly uncovered documents (made public only through a FOIA lawsuit) show the Obama administration aggressively lobbying against reforms proposed in Congress. The Associated Press found last year that the administration had set a record for censoring or denying access to information requested under FOIA, and that the backlog of unanswered requests across the government had risen by 55 percent, to more than 200,000.

The Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee looked into the state of the public-records law and in January issued a report with a simple, devastating title: “FOIA Is Broken.”

Incredibly, it took my ProPublica colleague Michael Grabell more than seven years to get records about air marshal misconduct from the Transportation Security Administration. As he pointed out, his latest contact in the FOIA office was still in high school when Grabell filed his initial request.

After a reporter at NBC4 in Washington sought files related to the 2013 Navy Yard shooting, Navy officials actively strategized about how to thwart the request. The Navy only apologized after it mistakenly forwarded its internal email traffic to the reporter.

When a Mexican journalist asked the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2014 for files related to its role in the capture of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the agency sent a letter back demanding $1.4 million in fees to search its records.

“There’s a leadership void that has gotten worse,” veteran FOIA lawyer Scott Hodes told me. “It’s not treated as an important thing within the administration.”

Why is the law failing so badly after all the promises about transparency? My experience and the experience of other journalists suggests the reason is twofold: incompetence and neglect.

When I probed a bit more into what had gone wrong at FEMA, the agency’s entire FOIA apparatus started to look like a Potemkin village of open government. The FOIA staff was never trained properly, a FEMA spokesman told me. Of 16 positions in the office, eight have long been vacant for reasons that are not entirely clear. The backlog of requests at FEMA has ballooned to 1,500. That’s more than double what it was less than two years ago.

Spokesman Rafael Lemaitre promised that the backlog was “frankly unacceptable to senior leadership here at FEMA, who have been aware of the problems and are taking actions to correct it.”

“Obviously the Freedom of Information Act is a very vital resource for taxpayers,” Lemaitre said. “Frankly, we haven’t done a very good job of fulfilling that promise.”

Over the past two years, whenever I periodically called or emailed for updates, agency staffers either ignored me, said their systems weren’t working or told me they didn’t have any new information.

My request outlasted the tenure of my original contact in the FOIA office. When I called 14 months into the process, I was told she had left the agency 2014 fair enough, as people change jobs all the time. But my request had apparently not been handed off to anyone else. No one seemed to know what was going on.

Last year, the federal FOIA ombudsman found that FEMA took an average of 214 days to process complex FOIA requests, the third-worst in the Department of Homeland Security. (That compares to an average processing time for complex requests of 119 days across the rest of the government.) “A lack of responsiveness prompted lawsuits that cost the agency a bunch of money,” said James Holzer, the head of the ombudsman’s office, who praised FEMA officials for at least recognizing the problem.

A hiring freeze at the agency after sequestration didn’t help matters. But officials told Holzer’s investigators last year that the eight long-vacant positions in the public records office would be filled as early as last fall. Today, those jobs remain empty. The FEMA spokesman didn’t have an explanation for what’s taking so long.

When I tried to find out whether anyone had been held responsible for the fiasco, I didn’t find much more transparency. “I cannot discuss any personnel issues, unfortunately,” the spokesman told me.

Has the agency at least set a specific goal for when it will get through its backlog? “Our target is to get these cleared as quickly as possible 2014 I don’t have a date for you.”

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‘Spotlight’ Gets Investigative Journalism Right

 “Spotlight,” the film based on the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church, is a remarkable achievement. — Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica editor

 

STEPHEN ENGELBERG, ProPublica
February, 2016

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in 'Spotlight.' Publicity Photo: Kerry Hayes, © Open Road Films

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in ‘Spotlight.’ Publicity Photo: Kerry Hayes, © Open Road Films Next, read Tom Regan’s column, Priest sex abuse: before Boston, there was Newfoundland

There’s a moment in almost every movie when people in the audience who really know the line of work depicted on screen cry out in frustration and say: “Oh, come on!” “Absurd.” “Never happens.”

Over the decades, Hollywood screenwriters have taken liberties with every imaginable profession and craft, from doctors to lawyers to spies to police detectives. Rocky Balboa survives punches that would decapitate an ordinary boxer. The car chases in The Bourne Identity defy physics. John McClane, the hard-boiled cop in the Die Hard series, displays a supernatural ability to evade bullets.

Journalism movies have had their share of utterly improbable moments. In the 1994 film “The Paper,” the city editor of a New York City tabloid gets into a fist fight with his female boss as he tries to stop the presses. (Not a great career move.) More recently, the first season of HBO’s television series The Newsroom showed a producer landing a series of astounding scoops in the first hours after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. The reporter’s information came from miraculously well-placed sources – a sister who worked at Halliburton and a close friend who happened to be a junior BP executive attending all the key crisis meetings.

All of this makes “Spotlight,” the film based on the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church, a remarkable achievement. The movie, which has been nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture, vividly captures the mix of frustration, drudgery and excitement that goes into every great investigative story. Where liberties were taken, and there were a few, they are in line with the realities of the news business.

One of the most credible aspects of the movie is the cluelessness with which the reporters begin their quest. As is often the case, the Globe’s group of reporters, known as the “Spotlight” Team, have no idea of the size and scope of what they’re trying to examine. At first, they stumble around, lacking the most basic information about how the church bureaucracy worked.

The notion of pedophile priests was not new. Newspapers from Dallas to Portland had done deeply reported stories on individual cases. Boston itself had just witnessed the criminal trial of a particularly notorious priest, Father John J. Geoghan. Initially, senior editors at the Globe are not even persuaded there was a story worth chasing.

As the film briefly acknowledges, the Globe was behind the Boston Phoenix, a respected alternative weekly, in covering the subject for local readers. Kristen Lombardi, a reporter for the Phoenix, had already written a series of stories implicating Cardinal Bernard Law, the leader of Boston’s archdiocese, in allowing Geoghan to remain in daily contact with children for three decades.

“Spotlight” opens with the arrival of Marty Baron, a veteran journalist who took over at the Globe after a stint as editor of the Miami Herald. As investigative reporters know well, Florida is a reporters’ paradise, lousy with graft, corruption and colorful characters. The state’s public records laws are decisively tilted toward openness. When a Globe columnist covering the Geoghan trial wrote that “the truth may never be known,” Baron sat down with the head of the “Spotlight” team, Walter “Robby” Robinson, and asked him to take a fresh look at the issue.

The editor suggested filing a lawsuit to force release of records the Catholic Church had submitted under court seal. Such suits were unheard of in Massachusetts. Liev Schreiber, the actor who portrays Baron, captures the true life editor’s white-hot focus and intensity, so much so that long-time colleagues were taken aback by the resemblance.

The movie accurately depicts the team’s key early breakthrough. The reporters figured out that priests who had “acted out” with children were often listed in the diocese’s phone book as on leave. They obtained years of directories and pored through thousands of entries to create a database, using the then-remarkable new technology known as a computer spreadsheet. With artful editing and a stirring score, director Tom McCarthy made this excruciatingly boring work an inspiring event, which in a way it was.

Another turning point came when Sacha Pfeiffer, the Globe reporter played by Rachel McAdams, knocks on the door of a priest who off-handedly acknowledges that he has abused children. (He asserts, bizarrely, that his conduct was not improper because he was not sexually aroused.) The reporter is clearly flustered and unprepared for this admission and she rushes through the interview before a woman at the house can slam the door. The practice of “door stopping” is routine for investigative journalists; nearly all such encounters end in failure. But the few attempts that succeed deliver an adrenalin kick unlike anything in reporting.

Fascinatingly, one of the more compelling scenes about journalism in the movie was invented by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, the screenwriters who worked closely with the reporters and editors involved the story.

It comes late in the film, after the “Spotlight” team has figured out that scores of Boston-area priests had abused children. Eric MacLeish, a lawyer for the victims, angrily tells Robinson that he sent the Globe a list of 20 priests “and you buried it.” Soon after, the reporters come across a story that ran deep inside the Globe’s metro section when Robinson was in charge of local coverage.

The writers came across the buried story when they interviewed MacLeish as part of their research for the film. They seized on it as the perfect way to illustrate the Globe’s earlier failures to investigate an important local institution. The conversation between MacLeish and Robinson is fictional. But the sentiments portrayed in the movie are real. “It happened on my watch and I’ll go to confession on it,” the Robinson told Entertainment Weekly. “Like any journalist who’s been around this long, I’ve made my share of mistakes.”

In investigative reporting, of course, nearly all great stories are screamingly obvious in retrospect. The reporting and documents the Globe obtained through its lawsuit proved that Church leaders had knowingly shuffled around pedophile priests from parish to parish. Geoghan turned out to be a piece of a much, much larger story, one that has rippled across the United States and the world over the past 15 years. Baron has pointed out that the movie is not a stenographic record of how the investigation unfolded. But it gets the big things right, providing a compelling picture of how great reporters break big stories.

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ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletterStephen Engelberg was the founding managing editor of ProPublica from 2008-2012, and became editor-in-chief on January 1, 2013. He worked previously as managing editor of The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., where he supervised investigative projects and news coverage. Before that, Engelberg worked for 18 years at The New York Times as an editor and reporter, founding the paper’s investigative unit and serving as a reporter in Washington, D.C., and Warsaw. Engelberg shared in two George Polk Awards for reporting: the first, in 1989, for articles on nuclear proliferation; the second, in 1994, for articles on U.S. immigration. A group of articles he co-authored in 1995 on an airplane crash was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Projects he supervised at the Times on Mexican corruption (published in 1997) and the rise of Al Qaeda (published beginning in January 2001) were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. During his years at The Oregonian, the paper won the Pulitzer for breaking news and was finalist for its investigative work on methamphetamines and charities intended to help the disabled. He is the co-author of “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War” (2001).

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Next, read Tom Regan’s column, Priest sex abuse: before Boston, there was Newfoundland

It was a bombshell: a local paper printed an exposé on sexual abuse by Catholic religious figures. No, I’m not talking about the Boston Globe, and its 2002 series on sexual abuse that won a Pulitzer Prize and is also the subject of the much praised film released November 6, “Spotlight.” That happened almost a decade after the story I’m referring to.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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WILFRED BURCHETT: A journalist’s “warning to the world”

By Tom Heenan, Monash University 
September, 2015

Wilfred Burchett. Photo courtesy of George Burchett

Wilfred Burchett. Photo courtesy of George Burchett

Seventy years ago, on September 5, 1945, Wilfred Burchett’s report on the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bombing was published in London’s Daily Express. Burchett was the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the bombing and was shocked by the devastation.

Under the banner “I write this as a warning to the world”, Burchett described a city reduced to “reddish rubble” and people dying from an unknown “atomic plague”.

Burchett’s report has been dubbed the “scoop of the century”. At the time it was ignored by most Western newspapers and dismissed as pro-Japanese propaganda. The story is now considered his finest. In October 2014, it earned him a place in the Victorian Media Hall of Fame, but the decision was not universally applauded.

Though Burchett cut his journalistic teeth with the Express, he built his reputation covering the Korean and Vietnam wars from behind the communist lines. For this, Burchett was dismissed as a communist propagandist and traitor, though few know the real story.

In Korea, Burchett accused the American-led United Nations’ forces of prison camp atrocities and waging bacteriological warfare. The latter was Burchett’s most controversial story and has since been supported by a 2010 al-Jazeera report. But it sullied Burchett’s reputation in the West and angered the US military establishment.

Burchett had seen remnants of germ warfare attacks. He had interviewed captured American fliers who had confessed to Chinese interrogators to conducting germ warfare raids. He had also assisted the World Peace Council’s International Scientific Commission’s investigation, which backed the North Korean and Chinese allegations.

Wilfred Burchett’s report on Hiroshima. Honest History

Wilfred Burchett’s report on Hiroshima. Honest History

Attempting to “kill” the story, the US military’s Far Eastern Command (FEC) asked the Menzies government in Australia for permission to “exfiltrate” Burchett from North Korea in September 1953. The government refused, fearing an electoral backlash if Burchett suddenly appeared on Australia’s doorstep. FEC persisted with a US$100,000 enticement, but Burchett was not for sale.

Meanwhile, the Australian government investigated the possibility of charging Burchett with treason. ASIO agents were despatched to Japan and Korea to collect evidence, but their investigations uncovered little. In early 1954, the government conceded there was no hope of prosecuting Burchett.

To deter him from returning to Australia, the government publicly kept open the prospect of prosecution while privately acknowledging it had little chance of success. It found a willing ally in FEC. Concerned about Burchett’s reports from Indochina, FEC asked the Menzies government for permission to discredit the journalist.

Consequently, Burchett was subjected to government-backed smear campaigns and barred from Australia. Repeated requests for the restoration of his Australian passport were refused. According to the then-immigration minister, Harold Holt, Burchett had “severed all connection with Australia” because of his “activities” abroad.

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima, by Hiromichi Matsuda, Public Domain via Wikipedia

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima, by Hiromichi Matsuda, Public Domain via Wikipedia

The Vietnam War altered Western views of Burchett.

Burchett had access to the North Vietnamese leadership and the South’s National Liberation Front. On requests from the British and US, he attempted to persuade Hanoi to release captured American airmen. His 1967 interview with the North Vietnamese foreign minister, Nguyen Duy Trinh, was considered one of the “scoops” of the war. It was the first inkling that Hanoi was willing to entertain peace talks.

When talks commenced in Paris in mid-1968, Burchett was courted by the US delegation’s chief negotiator, Averell Harriman. For his assistance, he was granted entry to Britain and the US. He even breakfasted with the US national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, at the White House.

But Burchett was still unwelcome in Australia. Fearing he might return, the Liberal prime minister, John Gorton, warned ministers against criticising the journalist outside the parliament. Recognising the flimsy nature of the case against Burchett, the government wanted to avoid being sued for defamation.

Burchett finally returned in early 1970 on a privately chartered light plane. The Gorton government had threatened airlines with steep penalties for flying Burchett into the country.

Wilfred Burchett with Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Burchett Archive/State Library of Victoria

Wilfred Burchett with Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Burchett Archive/State Library of Victoria

With the Whitlam Labor government’s election in December 1972, Burchett’s passport was restored. As Whitlam explained, there was no evidence to justify its continued denial.

Rumours persisted that Burchett was on numerous communist governments’ payrolls. The most damaging came from the Soviet defector, Yuri Krotkov. He and Burchett had met in Berlin after the war. They renewed acquaintances when Burchett moved to Moscow in 1957.

Krotkov defected to Britain in the early 1960s claiming to be a KGB agent. In reality, he was a minnow attached to a KGB prostitution ring, specialising in diplomatic honey-traps. MI5 dismissively off-loaded him to the Americans, and in 1967 he appeared before the McCarthy-ridden US Senate Sub-committee on Internal Security where he alleged Burchett was a KGB agent and on China’s payroll during the Korean War.

An account of Krotkov’s testimony was published in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) pamphlet, Focus, in November 1971 and tabled in the Australian Senate. In February 1973 Burchett issued a writ for defamation against Focus’ publisher, DLP senator Jack Kane.

The case was heard in the NSW Supreme Court in October 1974. Though strapped for funds, Kane’s case was well supported. The chairman of the Herald & Weekly Times, Sir Philip Jones, lent his backing, as did Menzies. ASIO assisted with the names of Australian POWs whom Burchett had met in Korea, while Australia’s military chiefs-of-staff took the stand on Kane’s behalf.

Even Kissinger kept an eye on the case. He and the American ambassador to Australia, Marshall Green, feared the trial could re-ignite allegations that the US had deployed germ warfare in Korea.

For two weeks Burchett’s reputation was butchered in the box and mainstream press. Despite this, the court found he had been defamed. As the article had been tabled in the Senate, it was protected by parliamentary privilege. Burchett won the case but costs were awarded against him, forcing him into financial exile.

Though he died in 1983, Burchett remains a controversial figure. Rumours persist of Burchett’s alleged KGB recruitment. In 2013, academic Robert Manne claimed to have proof of Burchett’s KGB links. Drawing on a document uncovered by Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, Manne asserted that Burchett was put on the KGB payroll in July 1957.

No evidence was produced to show Burchett pocketed KGB money. If he did, the KGB got short-changed. By the early 1960s Burchett had wearied of Soviet communism and sided with the Chinese during Sino-Soviet split. He even worried that Soviet authorities were tampering with his Moscow mail.

Rumours of Burchett’s alleged treacheries still persist. They are part of Australian Cold War folklore and seem to have influenced the Hall of Fame’s decision to support Burchett’s inclusion principally on his Hiroshima story.

Burchett wrote stories that the Australian and US governments preferred not to be told and paid the price. He covered wars in which Australians fought on the other side. He was not “a my country right or wrong” barracker, but reported the facts as he saw them, and for the most part got them right. His career should be judged on all his achievements and not reduced to a solitary story.

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Related information:

F&O’s Focus on the Pacific War:

Watch: John Pilger – The Outsiders – Wilfred Burchett [1983]:

 

Tom Heenan

Tom Heenan

 Tom Heenan is Lecturer, National Centre for Australian Studies, Faculty of Arts at Monash University.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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*Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us, with a subscription (click here), a donation, and/or by spreading the word.

 

 

 

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Sam McClure, Muckraker

JIM MCNIVEN: THOUGHTLINES  
August, 2015  

S. S. McClure

S. S. McClure

Sam (S.S.) McClure was born in 1857, the son of a widow forced to emigrate from northern Ireland to America out of sheer necessity. Her husband’s death in an industrial accident left her bereft and so she took her children and joined relatives living in northern Indiana, where Sam grew up. His was a classic Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.

Coming from an impoverished farm family, he succeeded in getting a wealthy  family in Valparaiso, IN, to take him in as a servant while he went to high school. He worked his way through Knox College in western Illinois in much the same way. 

Moving east after graduation, he managed to parlay his college journalism experience into the editorship of Alexander Pope’s bicycle magazine The Wheelman. Pope was a bicycle manufacturer who used mass publicity to generate the bicycling craze of the 1880s and 1890s. McClure began to do well enough to overcome the parental objections to his marrying his college sweetheart. 

Soon, however, he received a better offer from New York City, from Century magazine and left Boston. The magazine helped him to strike out on his own, developing a news syndicate that acquired or commissioned stories and columns from different authors and sold them to whatever newspapers and magazines would buy them, including the Century. Eventually, he branched out into his own magazine, named appropriately, McClure’s, just as the country sank into the 1893 depression. Even so, the magazine did well, with McClure using the pieces bought by his syndicate.

There were reasons why a low-cost, good quality magazine would sell in that economic climate. During the period from 1890 until the onset of World War I, a number of factors emerged to enable magazines, like commercial catalogs like that of Sears Roebuck, to spread their message across the nation. Postal rates decreased while Rural Free Delivery rapidly expanded the rural market for printed material. New technology, such as high-speed presses and halftone photoengraving were becoming widespread, enabling magazines to produce high quality illustrations on better quality paper at a fraction of their original cost. Near the end of the depression of the 1890s, advertisers were desperate to reach consumers in order to stimulate demand once again, and magazines were seen as a relatively low cost outlet. Their national reach through the mails also meant they could provide better exposure for national brands than could local newspapers.

McClure also innovated as his revenues grew by developing an in-house staff of writers and editors, rather than just relying on freelancers. He hoped to acquire a few, highly influential writers who would produce important stories. Sam was not the steady businessman who could make this dream real. Instead, he relied upon a college friend, John Phillips, a relative of the influential Boston pre-Civil War abolitionist, to manage the affairs of McClure’s while he dreamt manic dreams, courted important people and tended to his health by visiting European spas.

From 1893 on, McClure assembled the core of his magazine staff. He found Ida Tarbell in Paris. Ray Stannard Baker, a Lansing Mchigan-born reporter with a Chicago newspaper, proposed an article to the magazine which impressed McClure so much he hired Baker. Lincoln Steffens, a California and German-educated reporter for a New York paper was another freelancer who accepted an offer to join the staff. He was the son of a German-American Illinois merchant father who joined a wagon-train to California in 1862 and became one of California’s leading bankers, Finally, there was William Allen White, a son of a Yankee doctor who moved from Ohio’s Western Reserve to Kansas in 1859, as the turbulence of ‘Bloody Kansas’ receded. White did not agree to join McClure’s staff in New York, but acted as the magazine’s voice for rural and farm matters. His connection to the magazine gave him influence far beyond his editorship of the small town newspaper he had bought in Emporia KS in 1895.

McClure published many serialized novels in his magazine, from writers like Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain and he adapted the serial format to nonfiction as well. The public seemed to want personal interviews and facts, as opposed to political ‘spin’ He had Ida Tarbell produce a biography of Napoleon for the centenary of his rise to power, and then had her go out and discover new things to say about and by Abraham Lincoln for the 50th anniversary of his election as President. He sent the restless Lincoln Steffens out to look at municipal corruption and Ray Stannard Baker to investigate labor-management relations. Producing their researched and documented reports in regular serialized formats led to increasing sales of the magazine and brought a number of causes to capture people’s attention. Perhaps the high point was reached with the January 1903 issue, which contained three powerful exposés, the first installment of Tarbell’s history of Standard Oil, an installment of Steffens’ research on municipal corruption, featuring the Mayor of Minneapolis, and Baker’s article on labor union problems.

Yet, McClure grew restless and began to back away from more than intermittent involvement with the magazine. Erratic behavior led to his staff resigning in 1906 and, with Phillips at its head, starting a new publication, The American Magazine. As well, the era of muckraking journalism had begun to wane, until the psychological demands placed by the outbreak of World War I began to preoccupy the American public over domestic issues. McClure tried to resurrect his magazine after the War, but American tastes had changed and his effort failed in short order. Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s was, in itself, enough to make a sizeable number of Americans more tolerant of wrongdoing, while the continued growth of large companies and the corrupt political behavior related to Teapot Dome suggested that the muckraking effort may not have produced much of a lasting effect. 

When President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term ‘muckraking’ in 1906 to refer to the stream of exposés of political corruption, consumer fraud, the use of monopoly power and price rigging that characterized journalism in the late 1890s and 1900s, he was ascribing the image of the ’muck-raker’ in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress to the tenor of the time. In the novel, the man who is turning over the barnyard muck is so focused on his task that he has no time to look up and see the glories of Heaven. The President’s jibe was aimed at a particular editor who was a constant critic of his policies, but soon became a catch-all term for everyone who was exposing organized wrongdoing.

The term was meant to distinguish between the normal reporting of news events and the lengthier, research-intensive discussion of broad topics that might otherwise see the light of day. While generally such a function may use the tools of research and the forms of non-fiction writing, there have always been those who have couched underlying problems and evils in a fictional format. One could describe Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had a great impact on pre-Civil War America, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which appeared in the 1880s, a decade of labor strife, as examples of muckraking in a fictional style. Clearly, the work of Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens in McClure’s, along with the reportage of Nellie Bly from inside the insane asylums of New York and Upton Sinclair’s reportage about the meatpacking industry are Progressive era examples of the nonfiction variety.

The public interest in muckraking seems to wax and wane over time; there is always an undertone, perhaps expressed best by I F Stone’s Weekly in the 1950s and 60s and Ralph Nader’s research on auto quality and safety. Recent examples are in the claims of both the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. At some point public interest in scandalous practices rises above this undertone and becomes fashionable once again. Today, much of the muckraking activity is relegated to some television shows and to some blogsites. But the cycle will turn again.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2015

This column was adapted from Jim McNiven’s book The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern Americawww.theyankeeroad.com

 

Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis. 

Jim McNiven’s new book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that created Modern America.

 

 

 

 

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