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We Need More Journalists Like Seymour Hersh
February 5, 2002
by Jackson Thoreau

Way back in the late 1970s when the acrid stench of Watergate still filled the air, New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh spoke at my college. I was just a wet-behind-the-ears sophomore who found it hard to believe my government would lie to me, wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life.

I found my life's pursuit in Hersh's inspirational message: "It is the government's job to keep secrets; it is my job to find them out." There are many events that compelled me to join the largely thankless, low-paying-for-most, hypocritical business of journalism, but that hour of listening to Hersh - who has exposed numerous government secrets, including the 1968 My Lai massacre of hundreds of Viet Nam men, women, and children by U.S. troops - talk about how he unearthed such secrets ranked right up there. I saw journalism as almost missionary work, as a way to right wrongs, to expose injustice, to help the needy, to speak truth to power. When I read English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton's words, "The pen is mightier than the sword," I believed, brother.

Little did I know I was merely entering a harsh Fantasy Island. Once the boat left, reality was quite different from the brochure.

More than two decades later, I can only shake my head in wonder. How can we spend so much time and energy covering O.J. and Condit and the latest clothing trends, and miss the really important stories - the government secrets - like the details of exactly how the Republicans stole the 2000 election and how we've killed more civilians in Afghanistan than those who died here on Sept. 11? Speaking of Condit, why have we ignored the story of Lori Klausutis, an aide to former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, R.-Fla., who was actually found dead in the congressman's district office in July 2001 amid rumors of an extramarital affair, the resignation of Scarborough, and questions about cover-ups?

How can we magnify Clinton's and Gore's shortcomings to the point we're repeating bald-faced lies without even checking them, yet let Bush - who rarely has a press conference because his handlers are afraid of what he might say or mangle when not giving prepared remarks - off the hook and even compare him to Franklin D. Roosevelt? How can we let the Republicans convince us that the Democrats were equally tied to Enron and it was more of a business scandal, when the Bush administration spent the last year falling all over itself to help its friend, Kenny Boy?

The answers lie in money and myths. Let's just scratch one myth right off the bat: The media is no more liberal than Bush is sincere. Many reporters and editors might have been liberal in the Watergate days. But these days most are either moderate or lean to the right, based on my observations of working in the media for more than two decades. And the ones who call the shots - the corporate media bigwigs - are mostly true conservatives. Just review federal election records, and you will find the names of big media executives like Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch giving money only to Republicans. You won't find many who gave to Clinton or Gore.

That's why a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a group organized by Columbia University and others, concluded that overall Bush was twice as likely to receive positive media coverage as Gore in the last weeks of the 2000 presidential campaign. Another study by that group found that more than three-quarters of the campaign coverage of Gore cast him as someone who lied, exaggerated, or was tainted by scandal. Meanwhile, most coverage of Bush carried the theme that he was a "different kind of Republican."

That's why studies of presidential news coverage like Robert Entman's Democracy Without Citizens and Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency show that Democrats Clinton and Carter received tougher media scrutiny than Republicans Bush and Reagan. That's why Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the New York-based organization that superbly watches the supposed watchdogs, continually puts out releases and reports on how biased the media's coverage of W. Bush is. One blasted Newsweek's puff piece on Bush in December 2001 for failing to ask a more substantial question on the "war on terrorism" than this:

"From where does George W. Bush - or Laura, for that matter - draw the strength for this grand mission, the ambitious aim of which is nothing less than to 'rid the world of evildoers'?"

The magazine was so thorough in fawning all over Bush that it dismissed flaws, such as explaining why Bush doesn't read many books because "he's busy making history," FAIR noted.

Another myth - that the media actually cares about the average person - is equally infected by money. The media is a lucrative business, first and foremost. The New York Times Co. made a profit of more than $300 million last year - and most other media firms made similar handsome profits last year. Still, Times bigwigs cried about declining advertising revenue and laid off more than 1,200 employees in 2001. Stories about civilian casualties and the illegitimacy of the Bush regime do not play well to the advertisers of the New York Times, where Hersh once worked.

That's why the Times compared Bush's 2002 State of the Union address to Franklin D. Roosevelt's and even said it contained "moments of eloquence," which were insults to both Roosevelt and the word, "eloquence." That's why the Times and other outlets largely ignore reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, such as the excellent report by University of New Hampshire economics professor Marc W. Herold on the site of Media Alliance, a San Francisco-based nonprofit resource center for media members, community organizations, and political activists [see http://www.media-alliance.org/mediafile/20-5/index.html].

That's why the Times and other outlets mostly cover protesters of events like the World Economic Forum in terms of how they affect security, not on why they are protesting in the first place. Occasionally, a substantial story that covers issues that Bush's handlers don't want to see highlighted slips through the cracks, but those are drowned out by articles that focus on patriotism, the need for a military build-up, and similar themes.

Add in the increasing media mergers, the constant, unsubstantiated charges by the right-wing of "liberal media bias," and vindictiveness of Bush's people and the right-wing toward any media member who dares not to fall in line, and you have a complacent, lapdog press. It's not the right-the-wrongs watchdog I envisioned more than two decades ago.

While many of my colleagues are out chasing big bucks and awards and being paid to care, some of us still really give a damn about exposing injustice, helping the needy, speaking truth to power. Bill Moyers, Molly Ivins, and Helen Thomas immediately come to mind as well-known journalists who have not sold out to the moneyed crowd. The alternative press is full of unsung heroes who risk their careers and even lives to report the really important stories.

And I can't forget Seymour Hersh. A recent story in the New Yorker by Hersh reported that, along with Pakistan military officers and intelligence advisers, some Taliban and al Qaeda fighters escaped the Afghan city of Kunduz last November in nighttime airlifts approved by the Bush administration to help Pakistan leader General Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, avoid political disaster.

Have you heard about this story? I hadn't until I did a search for Hersh's name and found mention of it buried at the bottom of a Reuters article. Obviously, most in the U.S. press chose to ignore this intriguing story, which raises more questions about the Bush administration's "war on terrorism."

Bush administration officials denied Hersh's report, as other government officials had before eventually having to admit the truth. At age 64, Hersh, who has exposed secrets of Democrats as well as Republicans, remains an example of a member of the media who is doing his job. I just wish there were more journalists like Hersh.


Jackson Thoreau is co-author of
We Will Not Get Over It: Restoring a Legitimate White House [Mukilteo, Wash.: CyberRead, 2002]. The 110,000-word electronic book can be downloaded here or here. Thoreau can be emailed at jackson_30s@yahoo.com

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