Monday, August 18, 2008

Peace Correspondent

War correspondents have been all the rage in America for generations. News organizations love war coverage, even if what’s reported isn’t actually entirely true. “You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war," William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, telegraphed one of his soon-to-be famous correspondents in Cuba in 1898. We are again in a gilded age for war reports, with Russia invading the republic of Georgia—or was it Georgia attacked first?—just as the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going stale as old news.

But when’s the last time you read or heard anything by a peace correspondent? They sure don’t make the front page of the newspapers or get on national TV. Here’s a big reason why: “The newspapers get behind these wars,” Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist who teaches peace education courses, said on C-SPAN recently. “The [Washington] Post endorsed Vietnam. They endorsed Iraq. The New York Times endorsed going to Afghanistan.”

Here’s the difference war-supporting stances make in newsrooms. Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, McCarthy wrote a column in the Washington Post (4/19/03) pointing out that “the news divisions of NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox” had turned their news programs into platforms for gung-ho generals to tell the public we had to go to war and how to view the media pool images and reports by embedded journalists who could only report what military commanders approved. “Viewers are not told of possible conflicts of interest—that this general or that one is on the payroll of this or that military contractor,” McCarthy wrote.

Five years later, The New York Times informed its readers that the retired military commanders presented as news analysts on TV were working from a Pentagon script and also working for military contractors, in many cases. “Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks,” The New York Times noted in its belated expose, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.” (4/20/08).

So what would a peace correspondent do differently? Colman McCarthy is a good model. He poses pointed questions to newsroom gatekeepers. He writes about issues from a perspective that suggests there’s a lot more to the story than the Pentagon’s version. “Why were pacifists from such groups as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi USA, Peace Action, and the American Friends Service Committee not given airtime to counter the generals,” he wrote in the Washington Post in 2003. “Why were leaders from Veterans for Common Sense or Veterans Against the War in Iraq not brought in to offer their analysis and view: that what the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell-Wolfowitz war machine has been doing to the people of Iraq is brutal and criminal and that political, legal, and moral alternatives to violence exist?”

McCarthy also noted that covering “dissenting voices” can provide a vital window on what’s going on in our nation: “It was on C-SPAN, not the networks, that a three-hour antiwar forum aired on March 22 [2003] in which the director of Veterans for Peace said that hours after Congress endorsed a resolution to support the troops in Iraq it proposed cutting $25 billion from health, education, and disability programs for veterans.”

Colman McCarthy is not a household name on TV talk shows. But what he has to say about public education in America tells a lot about where the news media’s priorities are formed. Holding up a $100 bill on C-SPAN, he said no one has yet to win the history quiz he’s presented at schools around the country.

“I’ve done the quiz over a—hundreds of times, at teacher conferences, high school audiences. I always ask, ‘Who was Robert E. Lee?’ All hands go up. ‘Who was Ulysses S. Grant?’ All hands go up. ‘Who’s Paul Revere?’ They all get three for three. Then I say, ‘OK, all right. A hundred dollars. Here it is. Who was Emily Balch?’ Rarely does a hand go up.

“Emily Balch was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, taught at Wellesley College, founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Rarely does anybody know her. Then I ask who is Jeanette Rankin. I’m sure you know Jeanette Rankin. Only member of Congress to vote against First and Second World War. Then I say, ‘Who is Dorothy Day’—founder of the Catholic Worker. Very few know Dorothy.

“Every once in a while, someone will get five out of six, but no one has ever gotten all six. We know all about the men who break the peace, but not the women who make the peace.”

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