Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Journalism Under Siege

Sal Paolantonio, the parent of a Park student and a May '06 alum, is one of ESPN's best-known and most successful sports media personalities. He's also a journalist at heart.

Last night, he delivered an inspiring analysis of the current state of American journalism to students from St. Joseph's, Penn and Temple universities.

I thought you'd be interested:

Journalism Under Siege

Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat I voted for.

I spent more than five years in the United States Navy. In the late 70s, when many of my peers loathed the notion of serving their country, I did.

I am patriotic. I love my country. If asked, I would have gladly signed up to travel to Afghanistan to help find bin Laden and slit his throat.

But I’ve had enough. As a journalist – a reporter all my post-military life – I can no longer be silent. This president, this administration in Washington, is attempting to turn back the clock, attempting to re-enact the rogue, imperial presidency of Richard Nixon. And it must be stopped.

George W. Bush’s attacks on the first amendment are abhorrent, immoral and unconstitutional.

“If you add up added up all the attacks of all the other administrations on the first amendment, they cumulatively wouldn’t add up to what we’ve seen from this group,” said Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

I started my career at the Albany Times Union. I investigated corrupt government officials in the city of Albany and Rensselaer County. I traveled to Africa to cover the famine and I wrote about politicians who used taxpayer money for their own gain.

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, I covered three presidential campaigns, investigated a New Jersey judge who was eventually thrown off the bench, and uncovered the misdeeds and malfeasance of numerous government officials and politicians on both sides of the Delaware River.

At ESPN, I have been assigned the most sensitive investigative stories and trials. I have won numerous investigative and reporting awards, including the Associated Press’ highest honor for reporting, and five Emmys.

Given my career, I should be happy about the state of journalism in this country.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’m very distressed. Why? Because the Bush White House is at war with the press. George W. Bush – and I’m a conservative in most cases, and a republican with a small “r” -- is attempting to return to the pre-Watergate days, when the Nixon administration tried to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and reporters appeared on the White House enemies list, and the FBI kept files on journalists who challenged the administration and its views.

Right now, here’s what’s happening:

The FBI is reported to have been tapping reporters’ telephones.

The FBI is seeking 20 year old classified documents from the estate of the great journalist Jack Anderson.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has seriously suggested indicting the top editors of the New York Times.

The government is seeking to turn an 89-year old law, the Espionage Act, into an official secrets act.

Sports journalism is not even safe. Two reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, have been threatened with jail time for refusing to disclose their source for a series of articles two years ago about the baseball steroid investigation of Barry Bonds and Balco. Bonds’ steroid pusher is in jail for failing to testify, and now the reporters are being threatened with the same treatment.

Lazy federal prosecutors are making no distinction between the guys pushing the drugs and the guys reporting on the drugs.

“This isn’t just about guys in your business,” Senator Dodd recently told the New York Daily News. “It’s not about you and it’s not about me. It’s about your readers and my constituents, having a right to information.”

In response to the Balco investigation case, Dodd has introduced a federal shield law.

Just look at the way that the Bush White House has tried to manipulate and attack the press:

In the past six years, the administration and its surrogates have issued a stream of disinformation about intelligence and Iraq, including feeding bogus information to a New York Times reporter who helped sell going to war to the nation.

They have paid friendly columnists – and I use that term loosely – like Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher tens of thousands of dollars to mimic the White House line.

The Bush administration has accredited to the White House press corps a phony journalist who happened to be an ex-prostitute (talk about your double entendres) to pitch softball questions at White House briefings.

The administration has also tightened the Freedom of Information Act, making it more difficult for the press to learn about government activities.

And it has pioneered these so-called “fake” video reports that have been provided free to local TV stations, whose wrongheaded executives were only to happy to put on the air. Free programming that erodes the freedom of the press.

And all of this has been done in the name of protecting our national interest, our national security in time of war.

If you were doing a blueprint for a corrupt country, for a dictatorship, the first thing you would do is criminalize the exchange of information, and put limits on free speech.

This is exactly what the Bush administration is attempting to do. Besides being unconstitutional, it is also insidiously destructive to our free society.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once wrote: “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.”

Month by month, the Bush White House – particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, who is a direct descendent of the Nixon-Ford White House axis – has been more and more critical and threatening toward reporters and the press.

When the Washington Post’s Dana Priest wrote about sending muslim prisoners to foreign and secret jails, Cheney attacked her, calling her disloyal.

When the New York Times reporters Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau broke the story of the government’s secret wiretap program, Bush, Cheney and the Attorney General all threatened to throw the editor of the newspaper in jail.

Thank goodness they are tough. Several months later, both reporters broke the story of the government’s monitoring of an international banking database to track the movement of Al Queda funds – which, by the way, had been an open secret since Bush himself announced the existence of the program in five years ago.

That didn’t stop the attacks on the Times, however. The White House threatened to use the Espionage Act, which was written in 1917 by Congress without news gathering in mind, to try the reporters and send them to jail.

And conservative talk show hosts chimed in. One in California (a woman named Melanie Morgan) suggested that the editor of the Times, Bill Keller, be sent to the gas chamber.

Of course, the Bush administration understands exactly what is happening in the world of newspaper journalism. Newspapers, including the Times, are shrinking and slowly dying.

And by making reporters the enemy, the White House further arouses its conservative base. Why do you think Bill O’Reilly on the Fox News Channel (I use the term “news” very loosely) spends almost half his show every night attacking the New York Times?

The White House needs a scapegoat for its miserable disaster in Iraq, its failed policies in the war on terror.

They can’t beat Al Queda. They can’t tame
Baghdad. In need of an easier target, the White House has focused on the press. They have taken the easy way out, the one all despots eventually take. They have chosen to shoot, if you will, the messenger.

The press has been the perfect foil. The public portrayal of reporters, in film, on television, and by opinion shapers, is as – Dick Cheney’s on-time boss Spiro Agnew once said – “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Remember the final scene from Die Hard? Bruce Willis punches the idiot TV reporter in the face. Through years and years of stereotyping on screen and from the bully pulpit, journalists are seen as an intrusion, an annoyance to be swatted away.

Of course, if it weren’t for the annoying little habit called dogged determination of two Washington reporters, Spiro Agnew might not have thrown out of office for cheating on his taxes. And his boss, Richard Nixon, may have lived happily ever after as a two-term, one-man wrecking crew of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, what got the ball rolling to Nixon’s eventual resignation was a fight with the press that he lost. Determined to keep secret their assessment of the war gone wrong in Vietnam, the White House tried to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers – a case the government lost.

Attempting to find the leak of those Papers, attempting to suppress dissent, was Nixon’s undoing.

As the war in Vietnam continued to drag on and the howls of protest grew louder, Nixon got more and more paranoid. To find the leaks, Nixon created a squad called The White House “Plumbers,” financed by a slush fund.

The Watergate was bugged and burglarized, and it took two reporters from the Washington Post to undercover it all.

Playwright Tom Stoppard gave a great line to one his characters, a photo journalist, who said: “People do terrible things to one another. The only thing worse is if it’s kept in the dark.”

The founding fathers gave us another great line.

It’s called the First Amendment. Let me read it to you:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Thank you.


Dr. Dianne Lynch, Dean
Roy H. Park School of Communications
Ithaca College
w: 607.274.3895
Dr. Dianne Lynch, Dean
Roy H. Park School of Communications
Ithaca College
w: 607.274.3895


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