I woke up this morning and read the following piece of news:
“Sweden’s four national newspapers, Aftonbladet, Expressen, Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet boycotting Britney Spears concert at the Globe July 13. The organizer needs to press photographers must sign a contract that gives her the copyright to the images, and the right to decide which images may be published. ‘If they do not tear the contract we will not shoot,’ says DN’s image manager Roger Turesson.”
And I soon wafted into a day-dream that took me back to the world in late 2002 as the final touches were being put on the US military journalist embed program, and this announcement hit the front pages of a oh-so-imaginary-but-courageous New York Times:
“America’s four national newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribue are boycotting George Bush’s Gulf War to be held in 2003. The organizers of this event demand that press photographers sign a contract that gives them [the organizers] the right to decide which images may be published and what, if anything, they will be allowed to document. ‘If they do not tear the contract we will not shoot,’ says New York Times photo editor Jane ‘battlefield” Schmoe.”
I have been accused of naivete, and stupidity by those in positions of ‘power’ at magazines and newspapers for constantly harping on this.
Today, with memories that do not go beyond the 24 hour news cycle, editors justify their decisions to continue to ‘embed’ their reporters with the arguments like ‘there is no other way to do it – its too dangerous otherwise’. They fail to realize that this is precisely what the embed program hoped to achieve beyond its simple control of the ‘image’ of the war.
We live in the very house we built!
(UPDATE: 25th July 2009: NBC’s new prime-time titilation is called The Wanted that unites ‘special operations’ operatives with self-declared ‘journalists’ to hunt down what they describe – without evidence, right to defense, process of law, right to counsel, a fair trial and a full hearing of course, are the world’s most dangerous ‘terrorists’. Where they get this list is easily guessed at. But, my point is underlined by such lunatic programming – our ‘journalists’, our ‘military’, our ‘intelligence’ and our ‘government’ continue to conflate. and continue to loose credibility. we are not even pretending any more!)
By getting in to bed with one of the belligerents we asked our journalists and photojournalists to participate in acts of war. The Iraqi and Afghani has been dehumanized but can we for a moment imagine what it must look like from the hell they are standing and looking from?
Dressed as toy soldiers in camouflage our reporters/photographers are seen strutting around in US military camps, sitting inside US army Humvees during patrols, chatting it up with US army personnel as civilian bodies lay shredded all around, sharing meals with those who break through doors and threaten families, walking away with soldiers as they humiliate and drag men to prisons, sharing sleeping quarters with those who torture them, and speaking fluently the language of the pillager and occupier.
That is, as pure and simple collaborators with what are illegal, and brutal wars of occupation and pillage.
Is it any wonder then that it is ‘too dangerous’ to cover it from outside the embed?
I will add that real reporters have covered the war in Iraq from outside the ‘voice over’ of the US military. Urban Hamid and Dahr Jamal come to mind, and also the group of young photographers who took considerable risks to produce independent stories from the country and the war and horror that was bestowed on her by our leaders.
I will also add that there are those who did embed, and came back with stories and images that spoke beyond what they were intended to do. Chris Hondros comes to mind, Zoriah and also Ashley Gilbertson to name a few. But these are exceptions that reveal ways that individuals have attempted to get something more out of a bad situation. They are all unique characters, not easily usurped by others and their work beyond Iraq continues to confirm this. I am sure that there are others, but again, these are people working ‘against’ the strictures of the embed program and allowing themselves to think beyond what is being shown.
And perhaps in a great irony, I remember an Iraq photojournalist telling me that it was the ordinary soldiers that were most keen on helping him see the things the Army did not want us to see – they helped him and encouraged him to photograph the insanity of war perhaps in the hope that the images could stop their involvement in this madness!
It can be done, it has been done by more and it is the only and the right way to report these wars. But it takes commitment and a willingness to understand why we are ‘reporters’ and ‘photojournalists’ in the first place.
It can still be done.
The newspapers can still come together and finally refuse to participate in the embed program and possibly even pool their financial resources to allay costs. Imagine if tomorrow all reporters simply refused, announced that they were going to arrive independent of military cover and start to work to establish an independent presence inside Iraq and Afghanistan and make the investments to rebuild trust and credibility with them, and with us here in the USA.
We need to rebuild our commitment to journalism and in particular in the eyes and minds of the people who are dying for ‘our protection’ and our supposedly sacrosanct ‘way of life’!
Newspapers and news agencies around the world have in fact organized boycotts on a number of occasions. A little research shows however that they mostly tend to be aimed at pop stars, and sporting organizers. There was a slightly annoying incident with the National Football League some years ago, another with the Indian IPL cricket leage and then another with the football World Cup, and another with the Australian Cricket Board. I believe that the band ColdPlay was also the target of a threat of an organized boycott.
If we can confront the power of Britney, why not then the US military?
UPDATES: Some pieces that I came across that highlight the situation in Afghanistan a little better include Escalation Scam by Norman Soloman and a review by Ann Jones of the HBO film Fixer called Everything That Happens in Afghanistan Is Based on Lies or Illusions. I also found the hilarious but vividly revealing blog site for freelance reporter P.J.Tobia who is reporting the daily realities of Kabul and other places he visits.
NOTE: I realize that this boycott, like any against a pop star or a sports league, is less about ethics and standards and more about money. Rights to images determines of who gets the financial benefits of the images. However, the same argument can also be made for why American newspapers so eagerly jumped into bed with the US military; there was just more money to be made. It is easier to give people what they want than to adhere to the ethical obligations of your profession. Journalism is not just a business but, much like health care, also a public good. It is why profiteering by medical insurance companies or health care companies, so repulses us. Remember the Hippocratic Oath? We believe in the sanctity of the profession and its ethics reflect the ethics of our society; we care for all and it is just. It is what defines a civilized and developed society. Journalism is similarly – a public good and has priorities and responsibilities that go beyond money making. It has to balance profits with professional responsibility to serve the public. So yes, of course, embedding was easy and profitable and every one was doing it and it was going to be a huge seller since the nation was drunk of mindless patriotism that demanded blood and soon. We wanted pictures of heroes and liberators, not questions about the immorality and illegality of the wars, the fake intelligence reports, the lies at the UN or about ‘yellow’ cake and so on and so forth. I know all this. I still remain naive, and stupid, and idealistic and believe that regardless of the market share value improvement, it was the wrong decision and one that continues to hurt the newspapers and us as a society and a now-struggling democracy.)