American journalism is under assault. The Telecommunications Act of 1996,with its encouragement of media consolidation and homogenization, hasprovoked a marked decline in the diversity and quality of broadcast news.The latest round of print media mergers and acquisitions is puttingnewspaper writers out of work at an unprecedented rate. And the people whoown the nation’s communications combines are, for the most part, so risk averse and so thoroughlyobsessed with their bottom lines that they are making it impossible for the serious reporters who remain to do their jobs. These are fundamental, structural andrapidly expanding threats.
Equally serious is the threat posed by a government that, when it is notseeking to deceive a credulous Washington press corps with carefully-wovenspin, overtly threatens and punishes reporters who actually seek in thesedifficult times to practice the craft of journalism.
But the greatest of all threats comes when journalists fail to defend fellowreporters and editors who have come under direct attack.
When the Bush administration decided to ignore legitimate questions fromveteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas — with presidential presssecretaries and their aides going out of their way to try and isolate anddiscredit her for failing to practice stenography to power — the remainderof the press corps was for the most part silent. And the power of the press,which the founders of the American experiment had intended to serve as anecessary check and balance upon executive excess, was further diminished.
Now comes another test.
Sarah Olson, a 31-year-old independent writer and radio producer fromOakland, California, finds herself in the targets of Army prosecutors, Thoseprosecutors are demanding that Olson help them build the case against 1stLt. Ehren Watada, an officer who faces a court-martial trial for expressingopposition to the war in Iraq and for refusing to deploy with a unit beingdispatched to that country.
Along with a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Olson was in Decembersent a subpoena seeking testimony that would confirm the accuracy ofanti-war statements attributed to Watada.
The quotes are not seriously in question; in fact, Lieutenant Watada hasmade similar statements in a number of public settings. The firstcommissioned officer in the U.S. armed forces to formally refuse deploymentin George Bush’s war, Lieutenant Watada has made it absolutely clear that hehas lost confidence in the president as his commander-in-chief, that hebelieves the war lacks legal legitimacy and that he feels his participationin the conflict could make him a party to war crimes. This month, in remarksto a crowd at Seattle Central Community College, the lieutenant spoke atlength about “the illegality of this war.”
So why subpoena Sarah Olson?
Lieutenant Watada case is a difficult one for the Army prosecutors, and byextension for the commander-in-chief.
An Eagle Scout who joined the Army after finishing a degree at HawaiiPacific University, Lieutenant Watada served so ably during a tour of dutyin Korea that he was rated by his superior officers as “among the best” and”exemplary,” and recommended for an early promotion. Lieutenant Watada hasvolunteered to serve in Afghanistan, where he believes that U.S. troops areparticipating in “an unambiguous war linked to the September 11 attacks.”But he refuses to deploy to Iraq because, he explains, he believes that theU.S. presence in that country violates the Constitution, which requires thatwars be declared by Congress, and the War Powers Act, which places limits onpresidential war making. Lieutenant Watada also argues that the U.S. invasionand occupation of Iraq is in clear conflict with the UN Charter, the GenevaConventions and the Nuremberg Principles, which bar wars of aggression.
It appears that the prosecutors do not want to provide Watada with an openand fair forum in which to explain his arguments against the war. They arefrightened by the prospect that an obviously courageous and patrioticsoldier might, in response to questions about why he has refused to deployto Iraq, make an articulate and convincing case against the legitimacy of anunpopular war.
That’s publicity that the Bush administration does not want at a time whenits war of whim has gone terribly awry. And it certainly won’t help militaryrecruitment.
So the military prosecutors are trying to get journalists to build the caseagainst the lieutenant.
Olson is balking. The reporter is proud of her work, and she is notparticularly concerned about confirming quotes — something that journalistsfrequently do. But Olson does not want to serve as a pawn in theprosecution’s game.
“It’s not a reporter’s job to participate in the prosecution of her ownsources,” she explains. “When you force a journalist to participate, yourun the risk of turning the journalist into an investigative tool of thestate.”
There is no question that Olson is right.
The question is whether journalists will stand with her as she defends ourcraft.
Olson is asking reporters and editors to sign a letter objecting to theArmy’s decision to subpoena journalists to testify in the court-martial ofLt. Watada.
“It’s a journalist’s job to report the news, not to participate ingovernment prosecutions. The press cannot function if it is used by thegovernment to prosecute political speech, and hauling a journalist into amilitary court erodes the separation between government and press. Turningreporters into the investigative arm of the government subverts pressfreedoms and chills dissenting speech in the United States. The press mustpreserve its ability to cover all aspects of a debate, not just theperspectives popular with the current administration. We believe ajournalist’s duty is to the public and their right to know, not to thegovernment,” reads the statement, which is addressed to the prosecutors. “Inthe name of the cornerstone values this nation claims to uphold and forwhich the men and women in the military are fighting, we ask that you end toyour insistence that journalists participate in the court-martial of Lt.Watada. We need more information, participation, and debate – inside andoutside the military – not less. As the LA Times argued in its January 8theditorial: ‘It’s time for the Army to back off.'”
I am proud to add my name to the list of signers of a statement that is notmerely a defense of Sarah Olson but a reassertion of the founding principlethat a free press is the essential underpinning of democracy.
John Nichols, a veteran newspaper and magazine writer and editor, haswritten and spoken widely on the intentions of the founders who amended theConstitution to protect freedom of the press. The keynote speaker at the2OO4 Congress of the International Federation of Journalists, he is acofounder of Free Press, the media reform movement, and the co-author withRobert W. McChesney of three books on media and democracy.