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.”