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Intimidation punditry - A disservice to discourse

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There is a growing concern about intimidation in media these days. The most rapid species extinction seems to be of the courageous journalist, willing to report the unpopular and to ask tough questions. There is fear of angering a popular administration armed with razor-sharp edges and an increasingly compliant media. Some of this fear has been fostered by the likes of the recently disgraced moral illusionist Bill Bennett. But it has also worked its magic on otherwise staid career professionals.

We recently sat in on the dinner of an international funders group at the Council on Foundations in Dallas, Texas. Judy Woodruff, a 30-year veteran of broadcast journalism and CNN correspondent and news anchor, gave the keynote speech. Woodruff spoke partly on the war and it was very notable within the first 15 minutes that her talk was a paean to America's tremendous military capacity, to the American soldier, who had won the war to liberate the Iraqi people with such few casualties, etc. We were happy that Woodruff is such a great citizen, but wondered what happened to the journalist?

Woodruff's sequence on the war might have been written by State or Defense Department officials. And we were still willing to be surprised when any journalist so casually and comfortably touts so closely the government line of public instruction.

For a reporter to comment on a war and only mention the casualties on one's own side is very telling. It fits with an interesting item: there is not yet even an estimate of Iraqis killed reported in the American media. Over time, we believe that the American people would greatly benefit to have a truthful answer to this question. Another one is the still open question of weapons of mass destruction. Although in these pages we stated the great need for their elimination in Iraq, we also called for full disclosure of their existence following the hostilities. Where are they? Another great question Woodruff might have proffered is what is the plan on self-governance for Iraq - a reality check there would be most welcome.

Undeniably, there are overlapping scenarios that deserve coverage. A dictator was taken down. A people now may have a chance at remaking their society. But the role of the United States, a huge and complex power, is not explainable by romantic pictures of heroic soldiers. It deserves deeper coverage. The media's willingness to cover up the gruesome aspects of war for statues of tumbling dictators and kids waving American flags will ultimately ill-serve an American public that deserves to know, truthfully, the full impact and range of potential consequences of the policies and campaigns it pays for.

The mood of America has changed. There is a growing unwillingness to know the deeper and more nuanced currents of history and culture. The question of national security becomes paramount. People are fearful and willing to line up behind military discipline in times like these. For nearly two years since 9/11, the country has been on a state of heightened alert. We have agreed that the blows of 9/11 were too direct for the country to ignore. Military response was predictable and a war, once initiated, should be won forthwith. This is the way it is with nations as grand as the United States.

America is pushing back an attitude it has perceived is willing to do it damage. The passions of its population are at a fever pitch. The U.S. did not become powerful by allowing anyone to take a piece out of its hide. Although disappointing it should not surprise that some in America are pushing a bellicose posture. There also remain questions about secret reconstruction contracts issued to Republican associates and focused on that most cherished international territory - oil-rich Arabia.

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But, at this time when good information is crucial, in the United States in mass media reporting on international affairs and the Iraq War in particular, there is very little objective range. The actual pain and misery of events, even the numbers of enemy killed, are not properly explored. The complexities of tribal Iraq, how the various groups are likely to obstruct and disagree with American objectives, also receives little coverage. Coverage of potential financial motivations or current conflicts of interests is highly circumscribed. We submit that good, objective information is crucial to a democratically informed citizenry. A deformed public truth, such as those manipulated by dictatorial cultures, is a horrible monster to contemplate on the American scene. Today, it would be helpful for Americans to question whether they are self-restricting their speech, their own views, out of fear of intimidation and being publicly ridiculed.

Over the past 10 years, it has been the right wing that has steam-rolled the media. Its organizations, publications and think tanks - particularly Bill Kristol's "Weekly Standard" group - are wielding significant influence in U.S. foreign policy. Right wing punditry, however, tends to drive its points of view with sledgehammers. It fields a style of verbal attack that is very harsh and insulting of the opposition. Often, the intent now is openly to damage reputations and to seek to destroy the careers of anyone who might dare question the right wing ideology that drives so much of the coverage these days. Public discourse is deteriorating in the process.

On national channels and especially cable programming, all talk shows have hard-right commentators and while there are many right wing talk shows, there are virtually no moderate or liberal talk shows evident. They are a dying breed, perhaps vanquished with the scuttling of Phil Donahue's most recent show, which attempted to voice a liberal, and when set against the current climate, a forceless, response.

It is pretty obvious that the liberal or moderate mindset in reporting is in a retreat stampede. Always skittish, like long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs, woe now the reporter who would even dare ask the tough questions, or pursue a line of thinking that would question motivations and even official practices of the conduct of an American war. Woe to the man or woman in public life who dares disagree with the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Mike Savage, Ann Coulter, Shawn Hannity or Laura Ingraham, among quite a few others. Woe the wrath of the far right. The intimidation factor has grown fangs in American public life, particularly through the phenomenon of talk radio and yell TV. It is a whole way of being in media. Aggressively going after people who disagree with your idea of what is "American," which in this case, coincides with the point of view of the Republican party. Patriotism becomes label and sword. When investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh dared publish a controversial conflict-of-interest story about Richard Perle, a major pro-war policy figure, Perle labeled journalist Hersh, "a terrorist."

One problem: there is a growing control of media by career-dominating conglomerates. And since what is popular these days is the sense of America first, journalists are required to properly admire and even marvel at the prowess, courage, training and huge firepower of the U.S. Armed Forces. It is good to respect and support a strong military. We ourselves provided ample coverage to our men and women in the U.S. armed forces. However, it is not good to glamorize or romanticize war. Reporting the truth is the best idea. NBC News correspondent Ashleigh Banfield recently criticized that type of coverage of Iraq. "The horrors were completely left out of this war," she said. "So was this journalism?" She was troubled by the heavy hand of political self-censorship. For her comments, Banfield was reportedly "bawled out" by NBC News president Neal Shapiro.

There are many and growing examples of choking off critique among even our best working journalists. This is an attitude, we believe, detrimental to the public discourse of the American people. The increasing willingness of pundits to commit character assassination of open-minded citizens and of journalists trying to more deeply inform their audiences is a major stumbling block of good democratic dialogue.

American journalism serves the country well when it acts as a "Fourth" branch of government, a guardian of balance on the powers of the other three. Keeping it that way is a crucial issue for the future of our democracy.