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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/5/19

Requiem for a Free Press in the US: Where Did the Tradition of Journalists Speaking Truth to Power Go?

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By Dave Lindorff

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It's easy to let time and nostalgia get in the way of remembering what American journalism was really like back in the last century. Certainly it was not all Watergate and Pentagon Papers expose's, and even those two prime examples of the media's standing up to government threats and taking on the powerful were not easy to get past the owners and managers of the media and into print and on the air.

That said, it's clear to me a journalist who's seen a lot over my 47 years in the business that what we have today in the US in terms of what passes for journalism in the corporate mainstream is a pale imitation of what we had back in the 1960s and '70s.

We got a glimpse how badly the profession and the news media themselves have decayed in a public complaint made public Friday by a reporter who quit NBC News.

William M. Arkin, a long-time investigative reporter at NBC News, offers a scathing criticism of the employer he left after 30 years with the network. In an email message to his NBC News bosses and to the colleagues he is leaving , Arkin, one of the few reporters in the mainstream media to insist, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq by US forces, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq the argument the Bush/Cheney Administration used to justify a war of aggression against that country in 2003 wrote:

"I argued endlessly with MSNBC about all things national security for years, doing the daily blah, blah, blah in Secaucus, but also poking at the conventional wisdom of everyone from [Chris] Matthews to [John] Hockenberry. And yet I feel like I've failed to convey this larger truth about the hopelessness of our way of doing things, especially disheartened to watch NBC and much of the rest of the news media somehow become a defender of Washington and the system."

Author of the book American Coup, about the encroaching fascism of the Patriot Act and the whole sprawling federal post-9/11 Homeland Security operation, Arkin wrote, referring to the failure of the Obama administration to offer any real change or to slow or reverse that fascist trend:

"Somewhere in all of that, and particularly as the social media wave began, it was clear that NBC (like the rest of the news media) could no longer keep up with the world. Added to that was the intellectual challenge of how to report our new kind of wars when there were no real fronts and no actual measures of success. To me there is also a larger problem: though they produce nothing that resembles actual safety and security, the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested. Despite being at 'war,' no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the Petraeus' and Wes Clarks', or the so-called warrior monks like Mattis and McMaster, we've had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently have done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as 'analysts'. We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: There is not one country in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous."

He concludes:

"For me I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump's various bumbling intuitions: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI. Of course he is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I'm alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary, to be in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war. Really? We shouldn't get out Syria? We shouldn't go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula? Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really yearn for the Cold War? And don't even get me started with the FBI: What? We now lionize this historically destructive institution?"

A good indication of how badly the corporate media have fallen, becoming in effect, propaganda organs for the National Security State, is how the long pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is reported in the national media. Over the years, Assange's Wikileaks creation provided the US media and the American and global public with some of the most important stories of the era from the hard visual evidence of unpunished US war crimes in Iraq to epic political corruption on a global scale in the Panama Papers, and to evidence, in the form of purloined Hillary Clinton and Democratic National Committee emails, of both massive pay-to-play corruption on the part of the Clinton Foundation and of a corrupted Democratic presidential primary that deliberately skewed the whole campaign in favor of Clinton, fatally sabotaging the upstart campaign of her rival Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet instead of winning Pulitzers for his organization's investigative efforts, which led to headline stories in US, British and other countries newscasts and newspapers, news organizations, have toed the official government line in shamelessly attacking and smearing Assange, dismissing his legitimate fear of facing decades of prison or worse at the hands of US federal prosecutors who have a secret indictment waiting for him if they can get Ecuador to toss him out of their Embassy in London where he currently has asylum.

When I was a young reporter in Los Angeles, working for the Chicago Tribune-owned Los Angeles Daily News as a county government bureau chief, I found myself accused by the paper's managing editor of being "anti-business" because of an article I wrote highlighting how the county employee pension fund was invested heavily in the very same Fortune-100 companies that U of C students up and down the state were occupying administrative offices over, demanding that they be removed from university investment portfolios because of their support for South African apartheid policies.

When the story was not published the first time I'd had that done to a story I'd written I complained about the ME's justification for the censorship to my Executive Editor. He met me for lunch and counseled having local County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who represented the largely black Watts region of the county, get credit for the story instead of presenting it as the result of my and the paper's own investigative work. I said I would be quitting my job over that, explaining that I couldn't work for a paper that had such poor journalism standards and that offered such a critique of an employee.

Of course I was objectively "anti-business" in the sense that I saw the profit-obsessed workings of giant corporations like GM, Exxon and IBM in propping up a repressive racist regime in South Africa as criminal! But I was reporting fairly on the state-wide student protest against that scandal, and saw how the county's pension fund, which served a large number of African-American workers, was guilty of the same ethical blindness in its portfolio of investments. I felt it was a timely and important story.

I have many friends in the journalism profession who have similarly left or lost jobs for insisting on upholding journalistic integrity in the face of corporate pressure not to report a story. There are many more cases where reporters taking such stands led to stories being published over the objections of senior managers.

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Dave Lindorff, winner of a 2019 "Izzy" Award for Outstanding Independent Journalism from the Park Center for Independent Media in Ithaca, is a founding member of the collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper (more...)

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