America’s good, subservient press

This article was originally published on Salon on July 4, 2010.

On Independence Day, noting that the truly independent American journalists don’t work for big organizations

GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa — Journalists tend to take themselves too seriously, and their craft not seriously enough. So it is apt that some famous and obscure quotations and aphorisms about the value and function of a free press adorn the tiled walls of the restrooms at Rhodes University’s African Media Matrix — the building that houses what is widely considered the continent’s top journalism school.

One of those quotes is from Nelson Mandela, spoken in 2002, and it feels dismayingly correct today:

“A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press.”

In the wake of a major journalistic scandal in the United States, broken open in the last week, I have to say that America’s establishment press has never been technically better, but never more pathetically subservient. My hopes increasingly ride on an often bad free press that is getting better all the time.

Let me also say, upfront, that there are honorable exceptions in the top ranks of America’s major media organizations. But in what may well be seen someday as a seminal event in U.S. media history, senior people at the two newspapers widely considered to offer the most comprenensive political coverage have admitted — and, God help us, defended — their technically good subservience to the American government.

Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has discussed in detail the truly disheartening response to a Harvard study showing that the Washington Post and New York Times skewed their coverage of America’s post-9/11 torture policy, using the Bush administration’s newspeak language — “harsh interrogation techniques” was a favorite — instead of plain old “torture,” the word they’d previously used to describe the same acts.

And then, when asked why, top editors and spokespeople at both papers effectively said that once the Bush administration and Republican allies had pushed for the new language, the news organizations were duty-bound to use it, too, or else be seen as slanting the news.

That the news organizations had changed their language was itself disgraceful. That they then compounded the damage, with a defense that was almost the definition of a subservient press, was heartbreaking.

But George Orwell was rolling in his grave — perhaps with joy that he’s been proved so right, but also pure despair.


I’m participating at a pair of conferences in South Africa this week,Highway Africa and the World Journalism Education Congress. (Some of the travel costs for me and a companion have been covered by theconference sponsors.) It’s my fourth time at Highway Africa, a gathering that brings together many of Africa’s most forward-looking journalists for conversations, among other things, about the way technology is enabling the future.

Africa is a huge and diverse place, and the state of journalistic freedom reflects the differences: nil to relatively robust. Guy Berger, head of the Rhodes University journalism program (and someone who’s become a friend), says there’s more and more bad free press, and a positive trajectory in terms of quality.

But he shows me a bulletin board, the old-fashioned analog kind, on which clippings describe the ongoing struggles for freedom in many places; jailings, beatings and assassinations are a growing reality for journalists around the world — the victims typically  people who are trying to shine a light on what their governments or other powerful interests are doing.

On my first trip to Africa in 2001, I was with a group of journalists who visited nearby Zambia to offer Internet workshops to media people who were just getting wind of the potential in the emerging networks. We were scheduled to meet Fred M’membe, editor of the Post, an independent newspaper there, but he was in court defending himself against government pressure. Now he is in prison.

I told the journalists I met then, and at the two other Highway Africa conferences where I’ve spoken, that I feel great humility in their presence. Like others around the world who risk their liberty, and sometimes their life, for their work, they remind us all of why telling the truth to and about the rich and powerful is so important.


Today is Independence Day in the United States. I’m proud of what we have done so right in America, and believe, more than ever, in the ideals of our nation. For me, it’s America, right and wrong. We do get it wrong, horribly so on occasion, but we have had the institutions in place to correct ourselves time and again.

One of those institutions is the press. When it does its job.

I’m not naive about the long-standing flaws of American journalism. It’s never been as great as our mythology. But it has often shone when the chips were down.

They are today. Never have we needed truly independent journalism institutions — which despite great progress in the developement of online media still convey most of what we call “news” to most of the people — more than we do now.

The honorable exceptions aside, they are failing. And they’re failing arrogantly, insisting that they are doing their jobs well when the evidence is so obviously to the contrary.

I have less and less confidence that the technically excellent journocrats who work in the newsrooms of most major media organizations, especially the ones that have become so embedded in the political and economic power structures, will ever recover their independence.

Bloggers and other entrants in the newer media were barely on the radar in 2002, but I suspect Mandela would agree that some of the “bad free press” today comes from their ranks. I actually believe some of the best good journalism is coming from the new media, but we have to acknowledge that most online conversations don’t hit the high points of our best journalistic principles.

So, yes, my hopes increasingly are with the free-for-all — call it the cacophony or whatever you want — that may frequently be bad but which is getting better. I have absolute confidence that people who join this new journalistic ecosystem for the right reasons, and who do it badly, can learn to be good, because they can learn why it matters to do things in a trustworthy way.

The New York Times and Washington Post have done wonderful work through their modern existence. But their failures are so profound in recent years that it’s hard to maintain any confidence in them.

So for all of the excellence they’ve fostered, the editors at these famous institutions who refused to call torture what it was — bowing to the bogus and odious idea that channeling partisan propaganda was serving their readers — harmed their organizations with those cowardly word games.

And when they defended their acts of cowardice and dismissed criticism as tendentious, they went beyond harm. Their pride in subservience was a disgrace.

What, I wonder, does Independence Day mean to them?

(Updated to fix originally misguided Orwell reference.)