Remember Real Journalism

Last week, we asked: Whose news is it, anyway: Investors or citizens? Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer helped answer that question later the same evening:

Stewart: There are literally shows called “Fast Money.”

Cramer: …There’s a market for it and you give it to them.

Stewart: There’s a market for cocaine and hookers. What is the responsibility of the people who cover Wall Street? Who are you responsible to? The people with the 401ks and the pensions and the general public or the Wall Street traders?… I’m under the assumption, and maybe this is purely ridiculous, but I’m under the assumption that you don’t just take their word for it at face value. That you actually then go around and try and figure it out.

Jon Stewart summarized the segment nicely: “I want Jim Cramer on CNBC to protect me from that Jim Cramer [the lying, cheating hedge fund manager].”

Many of us were cheered to see and hear Stewart beat up on Cramer and CNBC on our behalf. Indeed, nearly 18,000 people at last count signed a petition asking CNBC to take action to correct its pro-CEO, anti-consumer bent. Yet as important as this story may be, it’s easy to forget reporters working in actual life and death situations without being paid gazillions to mouth off on cable every night.

Nearly a year ago, Leila Fadel, McClatchy Newspapers’ Baghdad Bureau chief, visited Bill Moyers Journal for a conversation about the war in Iraq. When Fadel revealed that she was only 26 years old—she arrived in Baghdad at 24—Moyers asked her about fear. She replied:

“You can’t be afraid all the time. There are cases where you’re afraid. I remember in 2005 when our hotel got attacked and we had a double truck bombing. And it was the end of 2005. And I couldn’t sleep for a week because it had happened in the morning. And I’d been asleep when glass started coming in. So I was afraid to close my eyes because if I would open them, maybe it would be shaking—maybe our hotel would be shaking again and the bombing would happen again. But that goes away. And you have to work.”

In January, The New Yorker posted a haunting essay from Lasantha Wickramatunga on its blog, entitled “Letter from the Grave.” Wickramatunga, editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper called The Sunday Leader, believed he would be murdered for his investigative reporting on the war against Tamil separatists. In fact, he was later gunned down one day on his way to work. He wrote his own obituary, addressed in part to the Sri Lankan government in anticipation of what he felt was inevitable. Here are just a few breathtaking lines.

“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted.

Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.”

We expect journalists to be fearless, but often, they’d be better off acting on their fear like Wickramatunga, who spoke of how his government had betrayed him.

Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists published their annual “Attacks on the Press” report. The multimedia package—and paperback book—details the plight of journalists around the world, as Wickramatunga put it, “dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands.” In 2008, CPJ reported that 41 journalists, most located in Iraq, were killed in direct connection to their work—22 deaths are pending further investigation. One hundred and twenty-five journalists—most located in China—were imprisoned in direct connection to their reporting. Forty-five percent of these journalists worked for web-based organizations.

CPJ identified the traditionally repressive regimes that continue to threaten a free press and also the “repressive countries that pretend they are not repressive,” which let the press do their job unbridled until it’s inconvenient.

Guess which country ended up in the latter category? The Bush administration’s appalling press treatment in the United States of America landed us there. CPJ’s evaluation addressed legal cases involving invasion of privacy and free speech, including Judge Jeffrey S. White’s attempt to shut down the website Wikileaks after the site revealed possible evidence of money laundering and tax evasion by Julius Baer Bank and Trust Company—the judge eventually reserved his decision. But the main focus of the report was journalists detained abroad at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, Iraq, and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. These cases include the following:

  •  “The U.S. military freed Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj in May after holding him for six years without charge or trial at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The military had made vague, unsupported accusations that al-Haj was a financial courier for armed groups and had assisted Al Qaeda.”
  • “In Iraq, the military released Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein. Part of a team of AP photographers who shared in a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for photography, he was held for two years after being accused of collaborating with Iraqi insurgents. Hussein, freed in April, was never charged with a crime.”
  • “The Pentagon confirmed that the military was holding Jawed Ahmad, a field producer for the Canadian broadcaster CTV, at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan…. Ahmad had been designated an ‘unlawful enemy combatant,’ but they did not disclose specific allegations or evidence against him. U.S. officials released Ahmad in September, saying that he no longer posed a threat to U.S.-led forces. Ahmad, who was never charged with a crime, claimed that he had been mistreated in U.S. custody.”
  •  “The U.S. military in Iraq detained Associated Press Television News journalist Ahmed Nouri Raziak for three months beginning in June after arresting him at his home in Tikrit. A U.S. military review board ordered that he be held ‘for imperative reasons of security’ but did not reveal allegations or evidence against him.” He was never charged.”
  • “Military forces held Reuters cameraman Ali al-Mashhadani for three weeks in July after arresting him inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, where he had gone to renew his press card.” He was never charged either.”

In his letter from the grave, Wickramatunga asked why journalists risk incarceration and death to do their jobs. He wrote: “I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk?… Diplomats, recognizing the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.”

It’s those choices that democracy demands of its most dedicated foot soldiers. We ought occasionally to pause for a moment and consider how much we ask of them, and how little support they receive from us, our frequent protestations of our own democratic virtue notwithstanding.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a Nation columnist, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America was recently published by Viking. He occasionally blogs at The Nation’s Altercation: Is it the Right Room for an Argument?

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.