The Road Traveled From Journalism to Jail
‘What is absent in journalism is not courage but consciousness and compassion.’
Six days after I took a buyout from my newspaper and left behind three decades in journalism, I did something I had never done before: I joined a protest against U.S.-sponsored torture and got myself arrested. I had covered demonstrations before but always as a reporter, playing the role of the detached observer. But this time I stepped out of my accustomed role and broke the journalist's taboo, becoming one of 20,000 others who were protesting the policies and practices at the renamed School of the Americas that has trained the repressive Central and Latin American militaries for decades.
I'm now an inmate at a federal prison camp at Lompoc, California, serving a three-month sentence for trespassing onto a federal military installation with 36 other protesters as an act of civil disobedience. Between then and now I've had lots of time to reflect on what happened and why. Journalists reading my words may decide I've adopted "a point of view," or become "political," or lost my "objectivity," or become "partial" to one side or the other. I don't accept those labels, and I do wonder how those who would want to put them on me deal with the kind of shame I've felt for so many years after reading the impartial news accounts of assassinations, disappearances and torture.
Still, 25 years later, I feel ashamed of the tacit United States collusion with the killers of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and ashamed of the El Mozote massacre, when 773 villagers in El Salvador were murdered by U.S.-trained soldiers. It's humiliating to read the evasions and distortions of the Reagan administration officials who denied the massacre and then persecuted the reporters who broke the story. Now there is the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. When these stories first came in, I was working as a copyeditor on the national desk at the San Jose Mercury News; in my job, I couldn't skip the stories I didn't like or ignore news irrelevant to my particular beat. I had to read every word of coverage and write some of the paper's headlines and captions for those iconic photos. I had to digest the horror almost like it was my dinner and, even after work, on the way home, I still had the taste of it in my mouth.
Compared to the enormity of what had happened, the whole enterprise of journalism — from reporting to editing — seemed unbearably passive, like the people who discuss the progress of a fire as it burns through a neighbor's house.
The problem with journalism isn't a lack of courage. In spite of the pressures, there are still moments of great courage, even careers of courage. It takes courage to report outside the Green Zone in Iraq, and it took courage for The New York Times to break the story of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens, and now to defend its right to do so against government pressures. But these moments stand out precisely because of their contrast with the main direction of journalism, which is rooted in the much-debated theology of "objectivity."
Objectivity provokes lively debate, as journalism professors Geneva Overholser (my Nieman classmate from 1986) and Stephen Berry (a former investigative reporter) displayed in recent articles they wrote for Nieman Reports. To Overholser's declaration that "'Objectivity' as a touchstone has grown worse than useless," Berry responded with a defense: "Objectivity is a standard that requires journalists to try to put aside emotions and prejudices, including those implanted by the spinners and manipulators who meet them at every turn, as they gather and present the facts." He describes the human being as being caught between "emotions and prejudices" and, citing Walter Lippmann, truth-seeking "scientific principles" that create "victories over superstitions of the mind."
The flaw in Berry's argument is that journalism, especially investigative journalism, has always been boldly and defiantly nonobjective. That has not made it subjective; it's made it value-based. Journalism used to take as a core value the need to"comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," a quote attributed to Joseph Pulitzer but actually written by Chicago columnist Finley Peter Dunne. There's no objective basis for saying that victims of oppression are important, in fact more important than, those who crush them for their advantage and then cloak their actions in platitudes and excuses. The truth takes sides; it sides with victims and challenges the oppressors. This is part of the structure of reality.
In my opinion, truth-seeking on behalf of those who are victimized is the courage that is missing in journalism. But today no one seems to care about the victims who populate so many of our news stories, especially when they live beyond our borders. Imagine how the Abu Ghraib scandal would have been reported had its victims been Americans treated in this way by Saddam Hussein's secret police. To this day, most reporters covering Iraq seem entirely unaware of the toll that the U.S.-imposed sanctions had during the decade of the 1990's, when an estimated 350,000 children under the age of five died from the lack of basic medicines and poor postwar conditions.
What is absent in journalism is not courage but consciousness and compassion. An example from another era might show this more clearly than one taken from the heat of this moment.
On August 9, 1945, a New York Times reporter wrote the following lede: "We are on our way to bomb the mainland of Japan." In the next sentence, the reporter describes the "specially designed B-29 Superforts," one of which is carrying a bomb with "an explosive energy equivalent to 20,000 and under favorable conditions, 40,000 tons of TNT." The writer speculates on the target before describing how he watched the "small group of scientists and Army and Navy representatives privileged to be present at the ritual of this loading in the Superfort last night, against a background of threatening black skies torn open at intervals by great lightening flashes. It is a thing of beauty to behold, this 'gadget.'"
This "embedded" reporter was flying on the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. At the distance of some 60 years, it seems remarkable that the reporter appears utterly unconscious of the 40,000 unsuspecting civilians who are about to be incinerated. Actually he is perfectly aware of what's going to happen, but he doesn't care. Later in the story, he comments: "Does one feel any pity or compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks of Pearl Harbor and of the Death March on Bataan."
This reporter did not lack courage in writing this article. Neither did he show cowardice. He was simply empty of any feeling for the victims. Despite military censorship, he might easily have written a more "balanced" and "objective" lede, perhaps using words such as these: "We're on our way to drop a bomb that might well end the war — at the cost of thousands of lives of unsuspecting civilian Japanese." But he didn't. He separated the world into what professor and author Noam Chomsky refers to accurately as the "worthy and the unworthy victims." Those who died at Pearl Harbor were worthy; those in Nagasaki unworthy.
The problem in journalism today is an epidemic of unconsciousness. Worthy victims seem only those within our borders, such as the victims of the attacks of September 11th, while those outside our borders, such as the Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire, are unworthy.
Yet when the press conferences and meetings are over, and the editors go home, and the lights go out and the presses are running, the villagers of El Mozote are still dead, and Iraqi parents are still grieving for their children who died during the 1990's sanctions, and relatives are still searching for answers about what happened at Abu Ghraib. This is the reality I contemplate as I lie on a prison bunk. For right now, prison feels like the right place to be.
David A. Sylvester, a 1986 Nieman Fellow, was an assistant business editor and business reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. He is now a federal inmate and freelance writer. His essays and reflections on the actions that resulted in his prison sentence can be found at his Weblog.