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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, May 18, 2008

War Drums in the Newsrooms?

When it comes to a conflict with Iran, a few other places come to mind. Specifically, I think of the present day war in Iraq, the First Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia and the Falkland Islands, to name a few.

The increased tensions in the region now between the US and Iran remind me of what it was like to be a daily news reporter or manager when the war drums start.

News organizations may deny it, but the prospect of being able to cover a war (and be given the budget to do it) usually creates a subtle but evident pro-war atmosphere inside the newsroom.

When that happens, the idea of reporting on alternatives to fighting rarely get investigated. Or if they do, they are often relegated to back pages, op-ed pieces or feature interviews. Anti-war voices don't seem to get the same amount of ink or airtime.

I'll confess to my own mea culpa. When I was managing the CBC Radio newsroom at the time of the First Gulf War, I got a call from a source in Washington, DC who heard from his source in the Pentagon that the first bombs would drop just before 7 pm eastern.

I asked - and got - permission to take over the entire CBC Radio network for a news special, at 6:55 pm. The network's program manager told me, "You better be right." I was and our Baghdad reporter was live on the air when the first bombs fell. It was a good call. I would do it again and I suppose, it didn't hurt my news "cred" either.

But as I look back on those days, I realize that I was hoping - perhaps somewhat unconsciously - that war would break out. It would just be a better story.
I had never covered a war personally, and I knew that this was about as close as I would get to the front.

At NPR in 2003, as Ombudsman, I was at a certain remove from the daily news operation, but I sensed that the excitement about covering an expected "short" war would also be a helluva story. And probably good for more than a few careers.

Foreign reporters have the most glamorous and interesting lives in a news organization. Foreign editors have invariably seen and reported from war zones. That gives them a level of moral and journalistic authority that others in a news organization can't approach or even dare to challenge.

In reading and watching the coverage of US-Iranian relations right now, I sense that newsrooms around the world are struggling with this issue. The blood rises as the possibility of conflict gets closer.

But after five and a half years of war in Iraq can news organizations still afford not to ask themselves the tough questions about war, peace and covering the build up to war in a better context?

To not ask those question will risk news organization being accused of complicity in a future war just as they stand accused of being enablers of administration policy after 9/11.

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