Media

Al the news that’s fit tobend

Marci McDonald March 3 1980
Media

Al the news that’s fit tobend

Marci McDonald March 3 1980

Al the news that’s fit tobend

Media

Marci McDonald

Clearly, it wasn’t the sort of news that The New York Times liked to find fit to print. SOME NEWS GROUPS KNEW OF 6 IN HIDING, declared the Jan. 31 headline over a foot-shuffling dispatch admitting that at least half a dozen American journalists had been in on the secret that the Canadian embassy in Tehran was harboring six American consular officials. Not surprisingly, the list included The New York Times itself. Beneath the stiff-upper-lipped explanation that they had “withheld the news because they feared that publication would endanger lives,” there was the distinct sense of a defensive harrumph that the big-time journal had been scooped by reporter Jean Pelletier of Montreal’s La Presse.

“It’s face-saving time,” joked one former Tehran correspondent in the weeks that followed, as the number of reporters claiming to have been privy to the scheme swelled to a cast that could have populated an entire newsroom. Another transformed his own red face into a pat on the back for the entire fourth estate. “Look,” he said, “there’s no way I’m going to publish something that could get people killed. This is one time where nobody can accuse the press of not being responsible.”

If the media seemed to leap on the occasion for a round of labored self-righteousness, it might be put down to a mild attack of professional identity crisis over just what their role had become in reporting on Iran. In the two years since the land of the peacock throne erupted into a chaotic passion play pitting East against West, journalists have found themselves not only taking notes from the sidelines but pushed into the spotlight-cast in a range of unscripted parts which have seemed to win them only catcalls and critical drubbing from every side. Indeed, their performance in—and subsequent expulsion from—Iran has been just one more act in a drama that has been recurring with uncomfortable frequency: forcing the press onto centre stage to focus on its own behavior.

In most cases the reviews have been, at best, mixed. From police chiefs raging against the syndrome that can turn a

griping crackpot sniper into media kingfor-the-day, to Third World governments decrying what they say is spotty, stereotyped and distorted reporting, an expanding pool of critics has provoked the profession into some painful stocktaking. As wire services have been compelled to justify their reportorial track records in developing countries—occasionally under threat of being hastily escorted to the border or seeing correspondents turned into crocodile fodder—and journalists’ associations such as the Periodical Writers’ Association of Canada have struggled to formulate codes of ethics, a new mood of defensiveness and even confusion seems to have settled over chunks of the fourth estate. Nowhere has that self-criticism seemed more evident than in the Tehran press corps’ retrospective reflections.

Says Newsweek correspondent Elaine Sciolino, who spent 4 ¥2 months in Tehran: “I don’t feel I work for my government. But one minute the Iranians would be shouting at us that we were agents of the Zionist imperialist press; the next,

they’d be sending buses around to the hotel to take us to press conferences and on tours of the shah’s palaces. We felt we were being jerked around by everybody.” Just before expelling U.S. journalists from the country for a second time, the current president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, invited them to lunch, cooing, “Diplomats cannot solve this problem. We want to solve it through newspaper diplomacy. Wouldn’t you like this to be the first problem solved by journalists?” In fact, in the absence of any American officialdom in Iran, reporters were already performing the function of reluctant diplomats. As Sciolino put it, “Our stuff took on much more importance because we knew Washington was getting most of its information from the press.”

As the revolutionary walk-ons polished their media sophistication to the level that they could spring into menacing postures at the cue of an approaching TV camera, journalists realized that they had become players in the action as well as pawns—manipulators as much as the manipulated—and, what was most discomfiting of all, obliged to focus on their own ill-fitting role in the unfolding of the plot. When the U.S. press corps of 100

reporters and technicians was tossed out of Iran in mid-January, the protests had a perfunctory air and there seemed to be a collective sigh of journalistic relief.

“I don’t think anybody wanted to be kicked out,” says Sciolino in her Paris office from which, by telephone, she now covers the Iranian beat. “But there were just too many journalists pushing the story further when nothing was happening-trying to find news that really wasn’t there.” Concurs NBC correspondent Jim Bitterman, one of those expelled: “It was a situation where, when we asked someone for a reaction on camera, we were forcing him into a position where he had to have a snappy response. Just by asking questions, we were in on negotiations.”

The coverage of the Iranian hostagetaking is only one milestone on the perilous high-wire journalists are finding themselves walking these days between covering the news and creating it. Indeed, as the world shrinks to a global village plugged into a single electronic grid, foreign correspondents covering the Third World have found themselves doing an uneasy balancing act between their fundamental beliefs in press freedom and the clammy fist of big brotherhood. With one abused shriek, developing nations have begun to question the very notion of freedom of the press, which for them seems only to mean—as British journalist Rosemary Righter put it in her study, Whose News?—“the freedom to protect Western values.” Those protests reached a crescendo a year ago last December at the 20th general congress of UNESCO in Paris when a Russian-inspired resolution that would have endorsed, among other things, state control of the mass media, almost carried the day.

Although the most chilling clauses were purged from the final document under pressure from a handful of socalled “Western” nations, Canada among them, the time bomb was far from de-

fused and journalists found themselves pledged to supporting world peace and combating racism—a task that, as one journalist pointed out, “isn’t our job. Our job is telling the truth.” The only trouble with that definition is that the question keeps being raised—whose truth?

As a UNESCO study has charted, the rich countries of the world have a staggering stranglehold over its information services. Only 10 to 30 per cent of all international news relates to developing countries and four major wire services (the American AP and UPI, Agence France Presse and Britain’s Reuters) serve up 90 per cent of the information ever broadcast or in print.

In mid-April a UNESCO-sponsored conference is scheduled to meet in Paris to

consider the nuts and bolts of financing developing nations’ forays into the information market, but the lack of hardware isn’t the only problem in what Kenyan journalist Hilary Ngweno has termed “this unrelenting one-way traffic of ideas and values.” Says Mustapha Masmoudi, Tunisia’s secretary of state in charge of information: “Surely the freedom of the press isn’t only the freedom of rich countries to express their viewpoints. What I read about Islam is all filtered through the deformations of Khomeini. I come from a Moslem country and I can tell you Khomeini is not at all representative of Islam.”

In Iran, the expulsion of American journalists came from just that clash of conflicting cultural perspectives. “I think many Americans here tried to do a good job,” admitted Abolghassem Sadegh, Iran’s chief ringmaster for the foreign press, “but the emphasis should not have been on the hostages.” As Newsweek’s Sciolino confirms, “We were constantly trying to tell our editors that all the Iranians wanted to talk about was the crimes of the shah.” When a single word carried

the weight of political judgment, Tehran correspondents struggled over what to call the embassy mobs. It all depends on what side one is on, after all, whether one brands a man with a gun a freedom fighter or a terrorist.

In a 500-page, 94-point report presented to UNESCO last month, the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems headed by former Irish foreign minister Sean MacBride, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, urged a “new information order” which would “abolish the imbalance in the means of communication while respecting the freedom of the press.” Recommending pooled information banks and co-ordinated press committees to help the Third World take a larger voice on the world stage, MacBride esteems that, of the gripes against the press from developing countries, “some were exaggerated, some were well founded. I think Third World countries came into the debate with a chip on their shoulders because they’re often misrepresented. But if you were a Namibian and you found all the news reports were filtered through South Africa because the wire service didn’t have a correspondent in Namibia, you’d have a right to find distortions too.”

But some developing countries also have no understanding of objective reporting and expect the press to stand on the sidelines cheering progress—playing unofficial handmaiden to the efforts of state. MacBride says he found journalists on the whole responsible and recommends a professional code of ethics policed on a national, and later regional basis, by the fourth estate itself. He has gone so far as to argue privately for a special status for journalists. “I’m not so much worried about their role,” he said from his home in Dublin, “as I am about their protection, not only from police forces and governments but from their employers as well.” Indeed, as a growing number of Canadian and American court decisions have recently indicated, not all the threats to the press are being aimed from afar.

Nor, as events in Iran have shown, has the only criticism of the press come from outside its ranks. “Journalists are reexamining their roles in society,” says MacBride. And from all available symptoms it is a professional crise de conscience that is not likely to be over soon. The only danger, as Rosemary Righter sees it, is that, in the course of legitimate navel-gazing, so few journalists, politicians or members of the general public seem aware of the issues at stake—the free exchange of information and the ultimate independence of the press itself. As Felix Frankfurter wrote in The New York Times 26 years ago: “Freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society.”