This year’s Arab Broadcast Forum in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, will bring together a few hundred electronic and print journalists from across the Arab region. They will engage each other in a series of discussions in the round, covering a range of topics of critical concern. This year’s sessions will explore threats to press freedom, evaluations of coverage of major crises, and a self-critical examination of their craft. The participants will benefit, but so, too, will the wider public, since the proceedings will be aired on the sponsoring networks.
I have been fortunate to have been a participant in past Arab Broadcast Forums, and other similar gatherings in the Arab world, and continue to be impressed by the quality of the conversation and the sharpness of the self-criticism. What comes through quite clearly is the concern that Arab journalists have for their profession and their commitment to improve the quality of their product.
Arab media may not be free, in the sense that there is government ownership and, in varying degrees, interference and censorship. But Arab journalists are free thinkers, and quite serious about expanding their freedom to examine critical issues.
All this stands in interesting contrast to the U.S. media which, while cherishing and boasting of its freedom, is increasingly constrained by factors that have resulted in limiting that freedom. The U.S. press is technically free of government influence, but there are a combination of political, cultural and commercial considerations which have made the U.S. media less free and less inquisitive. The controls are not overt, but subtle and at all times pervasive – and decisive.
There is, for example, the "corporatization" of the media, which has resulted both in a "dumbing down" of content and the push to mimic, rather than compete, in the ever-demanding need to increase ratings. There is the incestuous nature of the Washington scene: its revolving door of journalists going into government and vice versa, the self-serving need to protect access, and the shared social circle of too many government and media elites that results in self-imposed restraint. It is a nearly tribal world, with accepted "rules of the road," and a fear of "losing face." And, finally, there is the resultant "pack instinct," which has brought us such shameful episodes as the endless coverage of O.J. Simpson and the Anna Nicole Smith custody battle.
How else could one explain the shameless collaboration of the media in President Bush’s "rush to war" in Iraq, or the uncritical celebratory treatment of his "mission accomplished" speech. The latter is especially noteworthy, since this past week marked the fifth anniversary of that event.
While the pack has turned, and is now largely critical of that 2003 White House public relations stunt, what passed unnoticed this week was the media’s own culpability in the promotion of that event. It took some enterprising researchers from the media watch dog group, FAIR, to point out what commentators said then and have not acknowledged now.
It is infuriating that the very same U.S. journalists who rightly hold politicians accountable for their past sins on Iraq and inconsistent statements generally, have yet to engage in self-criticism of their own failings. Holding politicians to a standard to which you yourself do not adhere is not the best definition of a free press.
An example of this mindset was on display last week in the White House Press Room. Legendary correspondent, now columnist, Helen Thomas became involved in a "dust-up" with White House spokesperson Dana Perino. At issue was the White House’s repeated claim that it does not and will not torture detainees. Ms. Thomas wanted to know how the administration can continue to make that claim when all evidence points to the reality that the administration has condoned torture and, on several occasions, has admitted to its use. (The administration fought for the right to exempt the CIA and other intelligence agencies from the ban on torture; the Pentagon has publicly insisted on the right to use evidence derived from torture in Guantanamo military tribunals; and the Department of Justice sent a letter to Congress this week in which it reserves the right for intelligence agencies to use "prohibited means" in interrogation when the intent is to obtain information and not humiliate detainees.)
In the face of all this, Ms. Thomas wanted to know why the administration continued to deny what, in so many other instances, it has already acknowledged. In response to repeated and frustrating evasions, Ms. Thomas persisted, but to no avail. Finally, the spokesperson shifted to other questioners who changed the subject without any follow-up on this matter, causing Ms, Thomas to call out, "Where is everybody?"
Where, indeed, is everybody – this being the topic of her most recent book, Watchdogs of Democracy: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Failed the Public, in which she decries the failure of the White House press corps to serve the public and hold the government accountable.
A bold idea comes to mind. Let’s make a trade. Arab journalists can be brought to the United States to cover the White House, Congress and political campaigns. Here they can expand their freedom and perfect their craft. At the same time, we’ll send the U.S. "pack" journalists to the Arab world, where they can learn to fight for the freedom they now enjoy but do not exercise.
Or, American journalists can simply tune in to the Arab Broadcast Forum, and see how their colleagues overseas engage in thoughtful self-criticism in an effort to improve their profession and expand their freedom.