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Pulitzer Center Update October 26, 2006

Reporting Crisis: The Stories We Miss, and Why. Speech by Director Jon Sawyer to the Wake County United Nations Association


Reporting Crisis:
The Stories We Miss, and Why

Wake County United Nations Association
Raleigh, North Carolina
Thursday, October 26, 2006

It's a pleasure to be back in North Carolina, and to see so many friends. A number of us get together every summer in Black Mountain, the last weekend of July, for the Southeastern World Affairs Institute of the American Freedom Association. It's always a highlight of my year – partly because the speakers are almost always really good but even more because those who attend remind me every year that there's a saving remnant of folks who have not stopped reading newspapers, not stopped paying attention, not stopped caring about this country and its place in the world.

It's especially meaningful to be here this year, on the 50th anniversary of the Wake County UNA, to celebrate the work of Charlie Blanchard and Polly Williams and all of you who have made this such a strong organization over the years. This seems to have been a year for looking back at the United Nations itself – perhaps because Kofi Annan is winding up his ten years as secretary general or perhaps because the U.N. is again embroiled in issues of collective will, the use or threat of Security Council vetoes, a public that appears to delight both in excoriating the world body and at the same time looking to it as the catch-all answer to every crisis. In the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs there's a review of several new books on the United Nations; it mentions in passing a telling statement that President Harry Truman made at the close of the San Francisco conference that drafted the UN Charter in June 1945:

"We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength," Truman said, "that we must deny ourselves the license to do as we please."

Think of what that meant, of what it meant for a U.S. president to say it – at a time when America was far more the unchallenged colossus of the world than it has been anytime since. Imagine an American president – not just George Bush but any electable American president – who would hazard such a statement today. If you want a shorthand explanation of American missteps over the past 60 years, you could do worse than by starting with the premise that in each case someone had forgotten President Truman's warning.

I want to talk tonight about the crisis in American reporting, about the crisis in how we journalists report crises – how instead of clarifying and explaining we so often distort and confuse or, even worse, how easily we follow the official government line at precisely the moment when that official line needs challenge most. And how so often, in the process, we simply miss the stories that matter most.

In my view we're missing some big ones right now. We're not reporting nearly enough on this country's steady march toward war with Iran, for example, and the parallels between that conflict and the one with Iraq. We haven't done a good job of explaining the complexities of Vladimir Putin's Russia, or the role our own country has played in exacerbating crises such as the current conflict between Russia and its former satellite Georgia. We have done a miserable job presenting the range of belief and practice among Muslims worldwide. In our obsessive coverage of terrorism and the Middle East we have essentially ignored what history will probably record as the signal event of our time – the rise of China and recognition of that country as the predominant regional power by all of its neighbors in East Asia and the South Pacific, not least U.S. treaty partners like the Philippines, South Korea and Australia.

The work that I'm doing now, with this new organization called the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, is in important ways the result of one of those missed stories – the war in Iraq that didn't have to be. In my previous job, as Washington bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I had the amazing opportunity after the 9/11 attacks to travel through a large chunk of the Muslim world – from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan, from Turkey and Egypt to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Iraq and Iran. I toured most of central and southern Iraq in 2002 and then came back again in early 2003, just before the war, on a trip that took me through almost all the surrounding countries as well. I came away with the impression that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was far weaker, far more circumscribed in his actions, than I had been led to believe – by the statements of our government leaders and by the journalism I had read and seen. In the immediate Arab and Muslim vicinity, in weeks of travel, I found virtually no one who viewed the impending war as anything less than catastrophic – for them, for the region, and for the United States.

Now in my view those stories from 2002 and 2003 hold up pretty well, but that's not my point. I've certainly written my share of clunkers, too. The point is that as I traveled Iraq and the region in those months leading up to the war I so rarely encountered any of my journalist colleagues. For the most part they weren't interested at that point in seeking out contrary views or testing hypotheses; they saw the war as inevitable and put their energies into covering the story at hand. And what a story! One of the great evil geniuses of all time, about to unleash chemical or biological weapons, or worse, on us all.

The Bush administration is correct when it says that it was far from alone in misconstruing the nature and extent of Iraq's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. The view that Saddam was hellbent on developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons was about as close to mainstream consensus as Washington ever gets.

The Carnegie Endowment pounded that theme throughout the 1990s. The Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack wrote a best-selling book contending that the war was essential, and just. The intelligence reports of our allies in Europe for the part tracked our own assessments here.

Yet the fact that there was a consensus didn't make the consensus correct – and the media very much let us down, public and policy makers alike, by not pressing harder to test the pre-war assumptions. Instead of probing for inconsistencies, testing the evidence, we became an echo chamber – reflecting uncritically the views of administration officials, Iraqi exiles and others with a vested interest in bringing on the war.

Worse still, it was the most prestigious of our media outlets and personalities that led the way. The New York Times's uncritical reporting of bogus claims as to Iraqi weapons programs will forever shame that newspaper – yet editorials in the Washington Post beating the drums for war weren't much better.

As the war neared many of my colleagues were where I wasn't, down in Kuwait and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, "embedded" with U.S. military units and gearing up to participate in one of the great land invasions of history. The human-interest story of young men and women heading off for war was compelling indeed, and surely telling their experience was an essential part of the journalism required. It wasn't the only requirement, however -- but too many newspapers and magazines and broadcast outlets acted as though it were. As Pentagon-inspired propaganda control it was sheer genius but it also meant, as one veteran correspondent later described it, that you were telling 700 embedded journalists to cover the war with straws – sucking up a wealth of detail from one particular unit, one particular military service, with little or no sense of the broader Iraqi context. Many embedded journalists got to Baghdad before having their first conversation with an Iraqi citizen.

I don't need to rehearse all that has happened since. The absence of a coherent post-war plan, the non-existence of the WMD, the seemingly relentless march toward civil war. I did not cover the war myself; I have not been in Baghdad since those balmy nights a few nights before the bombs began to fall, when you could sit out on the street late into the night, playing dominoes and drinking tea and speculating with Iraqis as to what the coming American invasion would bring. I greatly admire my colleagues who have tried to cover the Baghdad of today – of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, of curfews and chaos and a deep-seated hatred of all things American.

* * * *

What is astonishing to me – what I want to discuss tonight -- is that against that backdrop, with that experience, American journalists remain so subject to manipulation when it comes to setting the terms of public discourse on America's role in the world.

This summer I spent a month in Russia and the Caucasus, gathering material for a project aimed at showing some of the spillover effects should the U.S. confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program end in war. My hope was to alert Americans to the many unresolved conflicts in that highly volatile region, where Iran's immediate neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan remain in a state of suspended war and where Georgia is relying on American help to stoke its own conflict with Russia. In that region Iran is regarded as a force for stability, critical for trade and energy. I met no one, government official or citizen, who viewed a U.S.-Iran war as anything but a catastrophe for them. I hoped to bring this perspective to American readers and policy-makers – to warn of potential unintended consequences much like those that followed our invasion of Baghdad.

What I didn't foresee as I traveled the Caucasus was that Israel would seize on a Hezbollah provocation as the opportunity to deal that organization a death blow – and that our government would seize the same opportunity, apparently in the belief that lashing out at Hezbollah is key to weakening Iran, and that if we kill enough of this latest batch of "evil-doers" we will yet prevail in the war on terrorism.

In the first weeks of the Lebanon fighting not a single prominent politician – Democrat or Republican – critiqued U.S.-Israeli policies, despite ample evidence even in those first days suggesting that Israel's military response would end up raising Hezbollah's stature in the Arab and Muslim world as well as in Lebanon itself. And journalists, perhaps because they had no politicians on which to peg a dissenting view, let that silence go largely unchallenged, too.

I say that this was apparent even in the first days of the war, yet in fact it was apparent well before – and certainly last fall, when I spent a week in Beirut and southern Lebanon with a mixed group of Middle Eastern and American journalists. We met with Hamas and Hezbollah leaders. We toured the Hezbollah fortifications on the Israeli border. We saw the UN observation post at Khiam, the one where four UN observers died in Israeli shelling during the first days of the war.

I wish that some of our policy makers - - the ones so stunned by the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, or the similar triumph by sectarian Shiite parties in the Iraqi elections - -had been with us in Beirut. I wish they had listened to people like my Middle Eastern colleagues, those who said that Hamas and Shiite leaders like Moktada al Sadr in Iraq were simply repeating what Hezbollah had done in Lebanon over the course of the past two decades: seize the moral high ground, at least as perceived by the local population, by leading resistance against an occupying force (the Israelis in Lebanon and in the West Bank, the Americans in Iraq),while at the same time providing highly visible social services to the most vulnerable and needy. I believe this is a large part of why each of these movements has now been elected, democratically, to positions of government authority – and why it doesn't serve much purpose for us to assail them as terrorists beyond the pale of international discourse.

* * * *

Of course if you believe that the Iraq invasion made sense and that it was wise of Israel to take on Hezbollah then you won't wince at talk now of going after the mullahs of Iran as well – and never mind that there are 70 million Iranians, that their government is currently flush with cash from the world's second largest reserves of oil and natural gas, and that the government's aggressive assertion of its right to pursue nuclear technology has rallied public support in a country that has otherwise long since lost its revolutionary Islamist fervor.

In 2003 I spent a month traveling through Iran. "Major combat operations" had just ended in Iraq, or so we were told, and Bush administration officials were riding high. John Bolton, then the State Department's chief arms control negotiator and soon to be ambassador to the United Nations, was asked about U.S. intentions toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and made the famously flippant response, "Take a number," as if it were only a matter of time before we enforced regime change there as well. Iran, like Iraq, was a place more caricatured than known, a country with which we had had no diplomatic relations since 1980 and where journalists made only sporadic visits. I was surprised by what I found: dissidents taking on the government, the most vibrant film and art scene in the Middle East, open debate even among senior Muslim clerics as to religion's proper role in the state, an absolutely determined desire on the part of young people – two thirds of the population is under 30 – for contact with the West generally and in particular the United States. It appeared to me a situation that cried out for American engagement, for the forging of business and religious and academic ties – almost anything, in fact, other than military bravado and threats of quarantine.

That's precisely where we are today, in a UN Security Council showdown eerily reminiscent of Iraq pre-war. Having rejected Iran's bid for rapprochement in mid 2003 we now face not the reformist government of former President Khatami but the militant President Ahmadenijad, who revels in Iran's anti-Israel rhetoric and who appears defiantly determined to press ahead with enrichment, reprocessing and other elements of a full nuclear fuel cycle. The focus for the moment is on the permanent members of the Security Council, specifically Russia and China, and whether they will go along with strong sanctions of the sort they reluctantly agreed to last month in the case of North Korea. But meanwhile, far less noted in media coverage, we are preparing the way for what happens should sanctions fail.

I wrote an article this week for the Los Angeles Times that attempts to lay some of this out: the creation of an Iran Directorate at the Pentagon, with some of the same personnel from the DOD's old Office Of Special Plans – the outfit later accused of massaging raw intelligence on Iraq to make the case for war. I summarized articles in The New Yorker and Time that describe an accelerated rate of contingency military planning, and the assertion by experts within the administration and beyond of Iran's alleged intent to develop a nuclear weapons capability. I quoted administration officials belittling the work of United Nations nuclear inspectors in Iran, and reminders from people like Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that a confrontation leading to the ouster of inspectors – has happened in Iraq -- would leave us far worse off.

I also wrote about what I saw as one of the most remarkable parallels to the Iraq debate pre-war, and yet something that went almost wholly unnoted in the mainstream American media. This was the enactment by Congress of the Iran Freedom Support Act, a bill that makes it official U.S. policy to support "efforts by the people of Iran to exercise self-determination" and that mandates sanctions against any country aids Iran's nuclear activities – even activities to which that country is legally entitled under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Sanctions are an act of war; applied against third countries they amount to an exercise in unilateral intimidation. The Bush administration actually resisted the legislation, arguing that its passage would complicate the delicate diplomacy we've all been watching. Yet Congress insisted, by huge bipartisan majorities. The measure passed with only 21 dissenting votes in the House; it went through the Senate by unanimous consent, on an unrecorded voice vote.

The new law got virtually no coverage, in the congressional rush to adjourn and amid the controversy surrounding e-mails between Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and teen-aged boys serving in the House page program. It has been overshadowed since by North Korea's explosion of a nuclear device, and the world's debate over how to respond. But if the confrontation over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program ends in war – initiated by this administration, or the next – you can bet this law will be cited as proof that Congress was on board all along.

* * * *

Let me cite just a couple of other quick examples, stories I believe the American media has missed, where marching in lockstep with the conventional wisdom has deprived us of a public debate we ought to have.

We've just funded a project on Venezuela, sending a reporter and photographer there to spend a month traveling the country, interviewing people and trying to figure out the phenomenon of Hugo Chavez. Here's a guy who has won three elections in seven years, who has survived an American-backed coup, who controls America's second biggest source of foreign oil and who travels the world as the self-styled successor to Fidel Castro. In my view this is someone we need to take seriously, to try our best to understand, and yet in most government and media circles he is ridiculed instead, dismissed as a buffoon. When he spoke at the United Nations last month – the speech where he said the podium was still hot because the Devil, George Bush, had stood there the day before -- John Bolton made a point of saying he hadn't attended, that he had dispatched a junior staffer because that was all Chavez merited. Coverage in the New York Times was equally dismissive, mocking Chavez for brandishing a copy of Noam Chomsky's book "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance," and saying afterwards that one of his greatest regrets was not getting to meet Chomsky before he died. That produced a droll parenthesis in the Times account: that "Mr. Chomsky, 77, is still alive.") A funny story – only, as it turned out, untrue. An editor's note in the Times two weeks later acknowledged that Chavez, according to the transcript of his Spanish-language press conference, had actually been referring to the late John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist, as someone he wished he had known. The editor's note said readers had pointed out the error immediately after publication but it two weeks – and a public complaint by the Venezuelan government – to get the correction run.

I mentioned earlier the reporting I did this summer in Russia and the south Caucasus. The long-simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia have now ratcheted up a few notches closer to war, after Georgia expelled four alleged Russian spies and Russia retaliated by shutting down the border between the countries, cutting off trade and cracking down on Georgians who work in Moscow and other Russian cities. Vladimir Putin's ham-fisted reaction is of a piece with his increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic rule and that is the way most news reports have framed the Georgia-Russia dispute. There is another side as well, however – the increasingly demagogic rule by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, the American-educated lawyer we backed in the bloodless Rose Revolution and whom we have showered since with military and economic aid. The people I interviewed in Georgia were deeply distressed by his crackdown on human rights, by the marginalization of ethnic minorities and by his threats to use military force to reclaim bits of territory that broke away following the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were distressed as well by the overblown rhetoric of U.S. government officials and the simplistic storyline of American media reports, painting Saakashvili as a beacon of democracy standing up to the Russian bear and suggesting that if war comes we and the West will somehow come to his aid. We almost certainly will not, given Georgia's location, its almost total dependence on Russia, and the fact that we need Russian help on Iran, North Korea and so many other issues of direct U.S. interest. If war does come, it will be the Georgian people who pay the price for our romance with Saakashvili.

The first project of the Pulitzer Center was one I did myself, earlier this year in Sudan. I traveled in Darfur with the African Union, to prepare newspaper stories and a video documentary on what those troops were up against and why it was imperative to make good on the promises of help that we and other western nations had made. My frustration, then and since, is that so much of the debate in this country and the media focus have been on getting Security Council approval for a UN peacekeeping force. John Bolton placed his chips on getting approval for a full-fledged UN peacekeeping force with a robust mandate to protect civilians, backed by the threat of targeted sanctions. Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir called the international community's bluff, knowing that at the least China and probably Russia too would wield their vetoes to block any attempt to insert UN troops over Khartoum's opposition – and that in any case, for all the political posturing, neither Europe nor America had the stomach to mount such a force.

The great irony is that the Bush administration drove Sudan policy into this UN cul-de-sac at a moment when it could have called Khartoum's bluff instead. At the beginning of this eyar Sudan's position was that a UN force was unnecessary in Darfur because the African Union was already there. Darfur activists rejected that option out of hand, as did many administration officials, on the ground that the AU force had proved too weak and too easily manipulated by Khartoum. But if the U.S. and its allies had used the AU as a wedge instead – as way to insert the logistics, advisers and cash so urgently needed in Darfur – Khartoum would have been hard pressed to object. China, Russia and Sudan's Arab allies would likely have gone along. Many lives in Darfur could have been saved – and still could be today.

It would take more leadership than we have yet seen from this administration, more informed reporting than we have had, and – not least – a recognition of realistic approaches from Democrats in opposition. We haven't seen that, either. The Washington Post ran an op ed earlier this month by two former Clinton administration officials, former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and State Department official Susan Rice, and Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey, a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus. They called for much more aggressive action against Sudan, unilaterally if necessary and including the use of military force. They said the U.S. should press for a strong Security Council resolution but that "If the United States fails to gain U.N. support we should act without it." That's what we did in 1999, they noted, when Clinton organized a NATO force to wage war against Serbia when the Security Council denied its endorsement. It's amazing to me that such an argument could still be made, after all that has happened since.

What was it that Truman said? That "we all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do as we please."

* * * *

I began my career at the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, writing editorials as a college summer intern back when Wallace Carroll was the editor. From then until last winter, 31 years, I worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, first as an editorial writer and reporter in St. Louis and then since 1980 as first a Washington correspondent and then as Washington bureau chief. The editor and publisher for most of those years was Joseph Pulitzer, the third generation of family ownership in St. Louis at a newspaper that viewed itself as a fiercely independent crusader for the common good. The editors there sent reporters like me all over the world. They didn't do it because reporting on Central America or Afghanistan or China added to circulation or brought in ads – usually it did not – but because they thought it was important, because they wanted to have a voice in the debates on national policy, and because they thought their public – their readers – needed to know.

That world is just about gone, the victim of public ownership and chain consolidation and the relentless pressure to meet the stock market's expectations for quarterly financial performance. Newsrooms everywhere are shrinking fast, and with it the ability to produce serious news.

If you haven't read "Bad News," the memoir by long-time CBS foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, you should take a look. He recalls that when he joined the network's Rome bureau in 1970 he was one of three full-time correspondents in that city alone – and part of a CBS global presence that included 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 mini-bureaus and stringers in 44 countries. Today the entire network consists of eight foreign correspondents and three bureaus. Four of the correspondents are based in London, he writes, where their job consists of doing voiceovers for videotape and wire reports others have compiled.

At the CBS of today, Fenton writes, they "take it on trust. Don't shoot it, don't report it – just wrap it up and slap the CBS eye on it. And hope you won't notice the difference."

You're lucky here in North Carolina that the News and Observer and the Charlotte Observer have both ended up in the hands of McClatchy, one of the few chains still committed to real journalism,. But that's the exception – and McClatchy's stock is down by nearly a third. The New York Times is suffering even more and the Chicago Tribune – owners now of papers from the Los Angeles to Baltimore and from Orlando to Hartford – the Chicago Tribune is in free fall. And beyond those high-end publications, in communities across the nation, newspapers for the most part don't even try to engage the world beyond.

It's in opposition to such trends that we established the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It's an independent division of the Washington-based World Security Institute, created for the purpose of funding independent journalism on issues of global significance that have gone unreported, under-reported – or misreported – in the mainstream American media. We pay for the reporters' travel, and help them place the work – in newspapers and magazines, radio and television, the Internet. If we goad editors into funding more of such work themselves, so much the better – but in any case we aim to be part of improving the quality, and quantity, of public debate on America's role in the world.

We've put together a brochure describing the Center's work, and some of the projects we've funded so far. I hope you'll take a look – and that you'll consider joining us, with financial support, to expand the work we're doing. The journalists we've funded are reporting from all over the world. The projects range from Congo's elections this summer to the emergence of China as a great regional power to a group of Muslims in South America who say they have been linked unfairly to Hezbollah.

The travel grants are open to Americans and non-Americans alike, to staff journalists and to free-lancers. We've already commissioned projects on five different continents; the work has appeared everywhere from the Los Angeles Times and Christian Science Monitor to the New York Times; from the Baltimore Sun, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and San Francisco Chronicle to NPR, public television and satellite tv. We've broadcast half a dozen video documentaries and have nearly that many more in production now.

We're excited by the response we've had, by the quality and passion of journalists coming to us for grants and by the willingness of newspapers and other media platforms to make room for enterprising, even contrarian work. We're exploiting as many different platforms as we can find, from Internet podcasts to narrated slide shows to video documentaries paired with print reports and college symposia. The idea is simple: to engage as many people in as many different ways as possible on the issues before this country and the world.

These have been difficult years, for America and definitely for journalists, but as I look ahead I count myself an optimist. The Internet is giving us incredible new tools of communication, the world is ever smaller, and there is a growing realization, by many Americans, that we are too deeply engaged in too many places and too exposed, ourselves, not to pay attention to our role in the world. There is a market for stories that matter, I believe, and plenty of stories to be told.

Thanks so much for having me. I look forward to your questions.