The Media and the World Around Us

Americans are becoming increasingly unaware of the world around them.

Calvin Trillin expressed it in a 1991 poem: "Whatever happened to Cyprus? So what's with the Greeks and Turks? ... Are all these getting along now? Or killing each other in private?"

The media, by and large, are part of the problem.

In World War II, correspondents wore uniforms with the "assimilated rank" of Army captain or Navy lieutenant commander. That symbolized that we were all on the same side. Censorship, and self-censorship, had general support because the war had general support.

But in the Vietnam war American authority and the American press found themselves no longer on the same side, in part because Americans were not all on the same side. Journalists came to believe they were being lied to. Out of the painful perception that their government could lie to them, and perhaps to itself, came a breed of watchdog journalists like David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Stanley Karnow, and Peter Arnett. So if World War II gave us a class of journalists with a clear idea of right and wrong and a willingness to accept their government at face value, the Vietnam war, especially in combination with Watergate, gave us a class of journalists disillusioned with government and uncertain about right and wrong.

Vietnam gave us the birth of the "living room war," the televised war that would one day make the camera and satellite more important than the reporter. Also out of that war came the conviction of military professionals that the press had given aid and comfort to the enemy - perhaps had become the enemy. Having seen what pictures from Vietnam did to undermine enthusiasm for that war, the military could fairly conclude that the less the US public sees of a war, the better.

War through military lens

In the Gulf war of 1991, the military was determined that the public would see the war the way the military wanted it seen. Its elaborate structure of press control - keeping reporters constantly escorted and under surveillance - was facilitated by the fact that most of the war was an air war, reported mainly from what the Air Force was willing to show. It was, for all the public knew, a war of wondrously accurate "smart bombs" that knocked out facilities but never seemed to hit people. So effective was the Pentagon manipulation, that when news organizations filed protests against undue censorship, opinion polls indicated that the public, by crushing majorities, favored more rigid censorship. The idea of the nosy press endangering American lives had been well sold.

The US public was left with a homogenized version of the Gulf War. Edited tape from airplane cameras showed smart bombs doing smart things. Much later the print media reported that only 7 percent of the bombs hit their targets.

Technology will provide a new kind of watchdog to meet the challenge of censorship. The end of the Gulf War brought us a harbinger of what is to come. ABC and CBS correspondents and camera crews entered Kuwait before the liberating troops and projected live pictures back to the US. The feat took four trucks, a ton of equipment, and a portable satellite dish. Barrie Dunsmore, who studied the "Live from the Battlefield" phenomenon for the Shorenstein Center, wrote that in the next war, the same feat will require only 100 pounds and two people.

There is little doubt that in the next conflict, the censors will be at some disadvantage trying to ride herd on tiny mobile transmitting stations. And since global television will bring the battlefield scenes to the enemy, new ground rules will have to be negotiated between the military and the media to guard the security of the US forces. Combat journalism will become less a matter of the watchdog reporter and more a technological matter of the watching eye.

Cold war as organizing principle

The division of the world into two hostile blocs served as an organizing principle for government policy, and for the press as well. If Truman said that the Soviets would penetrate Western Europe unless the US supported the Marshall Plan and the rearmament of Germany, he was generally believed. If Kennedy said he had to risk nuclear war to get Soviet missiles out of Cuba, few disputed him.

The Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union have fallen, and so have the scales from our eyes. Historians and journalists are having a field day with presidential tapes and documents exposing aberrations like assassination plots, break-ins on US citizens, surveillance, and wiretaps on opponents - originally justified as necessary to grapple with the "evil empire."

Without a unifying cold-war theme of how to view the world, coverage has taken on a certain random quality. Famine in Ethiopia became an American concern almost by happenstance because in 1989 NBC ran a vivid BBC story of starvation. Hunger in Somalia became an issue for Americans because cameras were there. Sudan, without cameras, never quite made it onto our screens.

Reacting to TV, not the event

Television's "CNN effect" or "global village" is a different kind of journalism, opening windows to admit the clamor of events into the halls of state and homes of citizens simultaneously. Even for a superpower government, it can be disconcerting to have to react without time to deliberate and formulate policy.

On Aug. 13, 1961, communist East Germany sprang a surprise in the middle of the night - it closed the border between East and West Berlin, preliminary to building a wall. My cameraman and I were able to cover the story and ship the film to New York just in time to make the 11 p.m. news. This was the first time a story filmed in Europe had gotten on the air on the same calendar day. President Kennedy told associates he wished he'd had more time for policy formulation before having to react to Americans seeing Berliners' despairing faces.

Preserving the watchdog

How does watchdog journalism survive in an era when media events replace stories and analyses, when parachuted stars replace permanent foreign bureaus, when media tycoons shrink the air time available for international news?

* Those journalists who survive the process must insist on the need to explain the challenges of the post-cold-war era - terrorism, abuse of human rights, a deteriorating environment.

* We need to reestablish a civil working relationship with constituted authority and persuade leaders that we won't plague them with trivial pursuits of scandal if they will try not to lie to us.

* Investigative journalism must find new arenas. Suffering, hunger, and unattended diseases in too many places are worthier of journalistic attention than the personal failings of an elected official.

* Media empires - including the empire one works for - can no longer be considered immune from journalistic investigation. Reporters - and executive producers - must be on guard against the pressures of their conglomerate parents.

* It may be necessary to redefine our audience. James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs, estimates the "attentive public" for international affairs at 4 million to 5 million. Public radio and television provide a serious audience for serious journalism. Perhaps the Internet will provide us with a self-selected audience.

This will undoubtedly be called elitism, but it may be that the future of serious journalists is identifying a serious audience and leaving the masses to the mercies of the mass media.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst at National Public Radio. This column is an excerpt of a paper he wrote for a symposium at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism in Cambridge, Mass.

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