When editors endanger a nation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 July, 2006, 12:00am

News editors and rank-and-file journalists are citizens of their own countries, but they're supposed to be objective about the stories they cover. This dual loyalty is not easy to manage.

Such inherent tension is common in every country where the media plays a significant role. But in the United States these days, the tension has become unbearable - as the controversy over tracking terrorists through the Swift database is demonstrating.

American political life has been poisoned by venomous partisanship of the most debilitating kind. The poison has permeated the nation's press. The presidency is the single most significant political office we have, but the judgment and even competence of President George W. Bush is being questioned once again.

This oppressive atmosphere of distrust and disgust helps explain why the nation's established news media was so eager to make the story public. It detailed the US government's clandestine programme to monitor the financial and banking activities of suspected terrorist, or anti-American, organisations and operatives.

The story was sold as further evidence of the administration's cupidity and illegality. On reflection, however, the programme was obviously justifiable. It had only to prevent one subway bombing or other such terrorist act to be deemed a very good thing.

But now that it has seen the bright light of day in the media, the programme is useless. The Bush administration said the revelations were all but a traitorous act in what is basically a wartime crisis. The president declared that the 'war on terrorism' will now be even harder to win because of the news stories.

But America shouldn't make a bad thing even worse by adding to the finger-pointing. All hyperbole aside, the request for restraint on making public the story of how we try to track down terrorists should have been honoured. Publication was unnecessary, premature and somewhat pointless. The programme was not directed at US citizens, it was not illegal and it certainly wasn't evil.

But it came to light after a cascade of stories about administration actions of questionable legality. This Swift surveillance story wasn't one of those, but it is easy to imagine that, in some American newsrooms, it looked like one. It is the White House and the Pentagon that have poisoned the atmosphere of America, sucking the news media down into the gutter with it.

Even so, the news media has no right to permit its journalistic standards to be lowered by anyone. Editors must develop, maintain and cultivate standards of impeccable judgment and motivation if the news media is to survive in the US as an invaluable, if unofficial, fourth branch of government.

The decision was probably a tough call: finding the balance between proper patriotism and proper journalism is not always easy. But the decision was a bad call. And it brings to a head what is probably the trickiest philosophical question of all for the American journalist: is it right that the decision of whether or not to publish is made solely by the editors themselves?

In America, the answer is always that the editors should make that judgment even if they turn out to be wrong. But what if the consequence translates into a blown-up building, a poisoned water supply or a plagued city? Would editors still conclude that the current system cannot be improved on?

The 'war on terror' is obviously going to raise new questions in tough new ways. Is the news media - without any expert guidance - truly qualified to make those judgments unilaterally? I fear not.

Tom Plate is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre