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'Lovely Outrage' 
Blunt Words About the Soft Press

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

Jan 13 2003


Dream Scenario: Charged with shaking up a hoary media roundtable like Reliable Sources, I bring in some folks with truly fresh views on how news gets done (and not done) in the United States.

I got a chance to test-run this fantasy recently when I was asked to provide on-the-job training in investigative reporting to a group of young Serbian journalists in Belgrade. The group had just returned from the United States where, on the invitation of the U.S. government, they were able to observe freedom of the press at work in American newsrooms. These promising young print reporters and TV producers -- who struggle daily to do meaningful journalism in the face of physical threats, squeamish media owners, contemptuous bureaucrats, and $300-a-month salaries -- spent six weeks at small and big papers in Mississippi and Tennessee and at network affiliates in New Mexico and Texas.

"'s no surprise that so many keyboard commandos get carried away with the fictive majesty of American journalism."

For me, the best part of the Belgrade assignment was not the opportunity to explain how Americans do journalism in theory, but to find out what these keen observers had learned about how we do it in fact.

I recommend such an exercise to all of my colleagues. With American coffee tables practically swaybacked under the weight of self-congratulatory media-star memoirs, it's no surprise that so many keyboard commandos get carried away with the fictive majesty of American journalism.

My reality check came when we gathered last month at a downtown café to talk about the Serbs' impressions of media in the United States. Over local brews or bitter Turkish coffee, the group politely effused about the gleaming equipment and lavish production values they had found in America -- no surprise given the meager resources at their disposal in Belgrade. Then they got blunt.

Vladimir Milic, a producer with Mreza, a news production company, expressed the group's disillusionment succinctly: "What a paradox: the United States is the global leader, yet you can't find information about the world your country controls." To Milic, local TV news programs -- where statistics show most Americans get their "news" -- came across as bewilderingly provincial. He swears he saw a segment labeled "international news" that featured a story on... Nevada.

He's right, of course: Frontline aficionados to the contrary, most Americans today are woefully uninformed about the world in general compared to their Serbian counterparts -- who know not only a lot about the United States, but about scores of other countries.

Even CNN, America's premier showcase for international news, struck the Serbian journalists as jingoistic, amateurish, shallow, and speculation-crazy, especially when compared to the generally calm and thoughtful BBC. As for the Fox News Channel, its daily fare sounded suspiciously like the rabidly nationalistic, pro-Milosevic propaganda the Serbs are still trying to flush out of the system here.

Indeed, for my Slavic colleagues, the Bush administration's stirring up of patriotic fervor around security issues was unpleasantly reminiscent of the way Slobodan Milosevic incited nationalist sentiment among the Serbs, in the build-up to a war that left hundreds of thousands dead and a region in tatters. Yet the American press seemed to be doing little to call Washington to task on this issue. Several of these young journalists said that the average Serb heard more critical reporting about Milosevic during the height of his power here than the average American hears about the Bush White House today. Nikola Jovanovic, from the Belgrade daily Blic, sounded personally affronted by this state of affairs: "You have freedom of information, which we didn't have. You can question the government -- but you don't do that. I would love to have that opportunity every day."

"The slaughter of foreigners lost its punch [for American media]as a topic a long time ago."

I couldn't help wondering whether the folks who run Fox would have aired dissenting opinions had they worked in the Yugoslavia of the early 1990s.

Nikola Vrzic, a reporter from the Serbian newsweekly Nin, sat in on an editorial meeting of a mid-sized Mississippi daily, where he heard brass mulling whether a potential nuclear war between India and Pakistan even warranted coverage inside the paper. One editor wanted to know, "What does that have to do with me?"

Well, what indeed? Institutional nihilism is now so ingrained in American media that it's nigh impossible to find a caring core. The slaughter of foreigners lost its punch as a topic a long time ago.

The prevailing explanation that the Belgrade journalists heard for the institutional timidity of the American press was enough to send them rifling through musty boxes for their old copies of Das Kapital. When Vrzic asked one editor if his paper would publish an article critical of a big advertiser, he was stunned by the shamelessness of the response: "Of course not," the editor told him, "we're here to make a profit." Vrzic blanched.

Such lovely outrage got me thinking about an old idea I've bandied at least to myself: Take media out of the moneymaking business altogether. Why can't news coverage be strictly a nonprofit activity, funded perhaps by philanthropists if not taxpayers? Why not view it as primarily altruistic, more like social work than like marketing sneakers.

Back on Makedonska Street, the Serbs were faulting the redoubtable White House press corps for failing to probe beneath the surface of events. "They don't ask why, just how," Jovanovic said. "They don't ask, 'Is that the only solution?'" At a press conference held while NATO planes were bombing Belgrade, not one Washington-based journalist asked about the justification for and specific objectives of targeting a major city. As for more current events, Marko Petrovic, a reporter for a weekly magazine, Blic News, wanted to know why U.S. reporters kept focusing on narrow technical matters pertaining to Iraq when the only really significant issues revolve around the intentions and interests of those moving toward war.

Amidst all this sobering criticism, Vladimir Milic found one bright spot: Time magazine's naming as its Persons of the Year three female whistleblowers who risked their careers and personal reputations to shed light on corporate and bureaucratic malfeasance and incompetence. Said Milic, who had trumpeted Time's decision to his own television audience: "That's an important message to ordinary people: You are not so helpless."

Amen, friends. Neither, for that matter, are the U.S. media, even in times like these. All together now, let's wail on those whistles.

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