Cash and Carry

Old habits apparently die hard in Iraq, where the Saddam Hussein custom of giving gifts to journalists returned during the campaigning for the January 2005 election. About 20 envelopes containing $100 bills (the equivalent of two weeks pay for an Iraqi journalist) were distributed to journalists attending a recent Baghdad press conference. Prime Minister Allawi's campaign attributed the gifts to gestures of Arab hospitality. Minister of State and Iraqi List Campaign Manager Adnan Janabi said the "Iraqi press are used to be treated nicely." He saw no ethical issue in the incident and added that "If we wanted to bribe the press, we would have to pay a lot more." President Bush is right: Freedom and the free market system are on the march in Iraq-following the lead of the United States, where U.S. "journalist" Armstrong Williams received $240,000 in taxpayer money to tout a Bush administration policy.

Japanese Pressure Points

Japan's public broadcaster NHK was rocked recently with accusations of censorship of its 2001 documentary on wartime slavery of the "comfort women." The program's producer said that "political pressure" forced him to alter the content of the documentary and remove uncomplimentary references to former Emperor Hirohito. Japanese historians estimate that approximately 200,000 women, mostly from then-Japan-controlled Korea, were sent to frontline brothels to service Japanese soldiers. Governing Liberal Democratic Party officials said they had intervened to ensure that the program was presented from a "fair and neutral viewpoint." Those responsible for the program objected to the revisions, "but were told to do it under orders," the program's chief producer said. An NHK spokesperson said the cuts "did not result in spoiling the fairness and impartiality of the program" and the program aired after "our editor in charge edited the program to his own judgment." Nothing like government enforced "impartiality."

When a Picture's Worth More Than 1000 Words

When the Boston Herald ran an explicit front-page photograph of a bleeding student dying from a police shot, it outraged many of its readers. The paper apologized the next day by saying the picture was "too graphic." The paper's editorial director said, "Our aim was to illustrate this terrible tragedy as comprehensively as possible and to prevent a repetition by portraying the harsh reality of what can happen when a crowd acts irresponsibly." Trouble was the student was not acting "irresponsibly" but was an innocent bystander peacefully celebrating the Boston Red Sox victory over the New York Yankees. The Emerson College journalism student was struck in the eye by a projectile fired by one of the police's new "non-lethal" weapons. One wonders whose "irresponsibility" the paper was trying to illustrate.

The Irony of Irony

The Guardian in Great Britain had to take corrective action after one of its columnists wrote a sarcastic remark that went beyond the bounds of acceptable or appropriate commentary. In his Oct. 3 column, its television writer called the Bush-Kerry debates a "dumb show" and made fun of the two candidates. He ended by saying that the global community was praying for Bush to lose the 2004 election or the world would have to "endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed, with no benevolent deity to watch over and save us. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr.-where are you when we need you?" The paper apologized for the last remark and the writer said his comment was intended as "an ironic joke, not as a call to action." It's ironic but irony has limits, too.

A Free Marketplace of Ideas

The controversy caused by sourcing problems in the CBS story on President Bush's spotty National Guard service resulted in the cancellation of another 60 Minutes piece on the even more questionable evidence on which the administration had based its pre-war charge that Iraq was seeking to obtain uranium from Niger. The uranium story was ready to run on Sept. 8, but it was replaced by the Guard story. After the criticism the latter story received at the time, CBS officials said "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the [Niger] report so close to the [Nov. 2] presidential election." Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting publicly objected, saying that CBS should not have allowed its own "PR problems to suppress a news report on an important issue until it no longer matters." If the case to go to war in Iraq was based partially on fraudulent documents, FAIR said, the CBS decision to kill such a relevant story is "really inappropriate." That was especially egregious, FAIR said, in view of the fact that Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom, CBS's parent company, at about the same time told a group of Hong Kong business leaders that "From a Viacom standpoint, we believe the election of a Republican administration is better for our company." Add this one, too, to the myth of the liberal media.

Column Loses Support

A columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and frequent critic of President Bush resigned last fall when his publisher refused to run one of his columns in which he gave the reasons why he thought Jewish voters were supporting Kerry over Bush, despite the administration's pro-Israel policies. The columnist complained the paper was trying to muzzle moderates like him and said that column writers are supposed to be "independent voices." "You might as well not have columnists if you're just going to bend their views to fit some editorial position," he said. The paper's spokesperson said the publisher thought the column might be offensive to some readers. But aren't the editorial pages supposed to vex those in power?

Internet's Yahoo Meets Journalism's Yahoo

A story in Bucharest's daily Libertatea reported recently that a couple had named their new son "Yahoo" to commemorate the fact that they had met through the Internet. A picture of the birth certificate accompanied the story, which received considerable world-wide circulation. Trouble was, the story was fictitious and the birth certificate was an altered version of the one that actually belonged to the reporter's son. The reporter admitted he did it to look good. He was fired. Which goes to show the inferiority of looking good over feeling or doing good.

* This column is a regular feature in MEDIA ETHICS.

Readers with verifiable contributions for future issues (all subject to editing), or comments on the entries chosen for this issue, should send them to Manny Paraschos, c/o MEDIA ETHICS.

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 2,16.