Committing Journalism

Committing Journalism in Zimbabwe

Back in April, Barry Bearak was arrested in Zimbabwe and charged with the crime of “committing journalism.” Most countries are more subtle when they suppress the news, but the authorities told Bearak he was guilty of “gathering, processing, and disseminating the news.” Bearak was eventually released due to the incompetence of the local police; they didn’t have the proper documentation to prove that he had in fact committed journalism.

A local friend once made a comment that still has me shaking my head. He quoted Spiro T. Agnew on the three threats to American Democracy.  According to the naysayer of the nattering nabobs of negativity,

The greatest threats to our nation are Communism, Socialism, and Journalism.

Agnew had reason to complain about the press. It was investigative journalism that brought down his boss, Richard Nixon, and led to criminal charges against Agnew. He had taken bribes while governor of Maryland and eventually pleaded guilty to failing to pay taxes on his extortion income after resigning as vice president.

But it’s hard for me to understand why an ordinary citizen would want to see the press suppressed.

Yet right-wing commentators like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh continue to make a good living using the media to blast the media and the press.

The last time I listened to Rush, he raised the question, “Are we better off?” after the news of Abu Graibes was published. The news of the abuse of prisoners set back the war efforts in Iraq. It brought retaliation; it was good publicity for Al Qaida.

Rush’s question implies that the problem was not the abuse of prisoners but the truth. And truth is dangerous. His question implies that “we the people” are better off being kept in the dark, better off not knowing. In the war on terrorism, do we have to destroy democracy in order to save it?

Prison Writings of Red Hog are another case of someone being prosecuted for committing journalism. Eric Alterman (no known relation, but we affectionately refer to him as “cousin Eric”) has written a book called What Liberal Media? He documents how the major news media have been consolidated and controlled by corporate interests, how investigative journalists have been laid off, and how these developments are a threat to democracy. Bill Moyers recently made similar observations.

Partly related, yesterday was the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. I was taught the “official version” in school, that the murder of civilians was necessary to save American (and Japanese) lives by bringing the war to an early close.

I wasn’t taught that Truman’s own Generals and Admirals (Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Leahy) condemned the bombing as unnecessary and barbaric (Ralph Raico, here).

I wasn’t taught that American newspapers were forbidden to report on the radiation damage, and that one reporter who did publish the truth was prosecuted (John PIlger, here).

What do you think? Are we better off being shielded from the truth? Do we need more or less journalism?

I Was a Rampman

Almost in another life, twenty-some years ago, to support my habit of going to graduate school I worked as a ramp service worker for Eastern Airlines. It was a good job. I worked with a bunch of young, hard working, conscientious people. The job involved hard physical labor, but most of the men and women, like me, had college degrees.

We directed airplanes to their parking spot on the runway, checked the oil, de-iced the planes in the winter, and otherwise serviced the aircraft during the few brief minutes they were on the ground. We also unloaded and loaded cargo, including passengers’ luggage, traveling animals, air freight, and the U.S. mail.

When our employers wanted to emphasize to us how important our job was, they called us by our official title, Ramp Service Workers. When they wanted to remind the public that we were overpaid, they called us baggage handlers.

We had a lot of camaraderie among the workforce. I remember the song, “I Was a Highwayman” by Johnny Cash, Chris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. We improvised our own version, “I Was a Rampman.”

We would work hard for an hour or so at a time while a dozen or more aircraft were at the gates. On the evening shift, though, there was usually at least an hour of free time between rounds of flights. We had to be ready to respond to any urgent needs, but otherwise were free to entertain ourselves as we pleased. There was a large public break room with a television, tables, and comfortable chairs, and a sink to wash one’s hands after servicing aircraft. I used some of this time to keep up with my studies. I taught myself Latin at KCI.

One day a pilot and the flight attendants came into the break room. The pilot asked me if there was a place he could wash his hands, and I pointed to the sink. He leaned toward me and said, “I mean, I need to use the restroom.”

Oops! I had missed a euphemism. Euphemisms are polite ways of speaking about things that are embarrassing, unpleasant, or private. Normally we use euphemisms to refer to death, sex, and private bodily functions. Euphemisms are handy for those awkward situations where we have a need to refer to such matters without unduly offending or disturbing anyone.

But euphemisms are also used by politicians to obscure the truth.

My kids liked the late comedian Mitch Hedberg, and they went to see him in one of his last performances before his untimely death. One of his jokes I liked was about catch-and-release fishing. He said, “They don’t want to eat the fish, they just want to make it late for something.”

I don’t know why, but this joke makes me think of the current euphemistic use of the words, detain and detainee. Somehow being a detainee sounds nicer than being a prisoner. Detainees are even entertained by waterboarding, a procedure evidently so innocent that our current attorney general can’t call it torture.

I understand that politicians have to use euphemisms when the truth would hurt them. But don’t you think that when journalists adopt their reality-evading jargon, they become complicit in deceiving the public?