Sunday, September 20, 2009
Journalistic Ethics and Their Consequences
Back in 2007, I taught a course in journalism and ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The class was made up mostly of older students. Many of them were working journalists, looking to get a Masters degree.
One of the students was a man in his 40s who came to the US from Iraq, named Adil Awadh. Over the months, as we spoke in class about the conflicts and dilemmas of daily journalism, Adil and I would talk at length after class. Most of what concerned him was the question of institutional integrity and how can one deal with moral corruption in a news organization whose goal should be to tell the truth? It was clear there was a story here...
We spent quite a bit of time talking about that issue, and over the weeks, Adil's story emerged.
Adil told me that he had been a doctor in Iraq, drafted into Saddam's army. At some point he decided to desert and flee with his wife and children. The moment of crisis came when as an army doctor, he was ordered to cut off the ears of Iraqi soldiers who had tried to desert and who had been foiled in their attempts to escape. Adil refused, and fled to London where he made contact with anti-Saddam resistance organizations.
But the London groups were unwilling to help him, or even to publish his story. In 2002 Brian Whitaker, in The Guardian wrote a story about Adil's allegations, insinuating that he was an "agent provocateur," possibly a Saddam plant or even an Israeli agent.*
Adil left England and came to America where he was hired by Radio Sawa, a Congressionally funded, pro-US radio service, broadcasting into Iraq from studios in Virginia.
It was while he was an employee at Radio Sawa, that Adil enrolled at Georgetown, taking a night class in journalism and ethics.
According to Adil, Radio Sawa and its parent organization, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) was rife with incompetence and corruption all the way to the top of the organization (MBN also is in charge of another US government broadcaster - Al Hurra, which has also come under criticism for waste and mismanagement).
Adil complaints to the Office of the Inspector General at the State Department, finally resulted in an investigation. CBS' "60 Minutes" and ProPublica did their own exploration in which they concluded that a lack of managerial oversight and undue political interference from the Bush Administration had made Radio Sawa into a disfunctional operation.
So far, Radio Sawa continues to operate and broadcast to an audience in Iraq that is, according to CBS, almost unmeasurable because it is so miniscule.
Last week, Adil's name became known to the Sawa management and he was fired. I received this email from him:
Dear Professor Dvorkin,
I have bad news to share with you...MBN-Radio Sawa has terminated my employment with them last week. I am taking them to court for wrongful discharge, in retaliation to a whistleblowing.
I really feel that I am a victim of the journalistic ethics that you have taught at GU. I chose to perform ethically in a place (MBN) that did not uphold them, but I had to report to the people the "truth", and when I saw the corruption at MBN, I had no other choice but to speak up against it, otherwise, how could we ask the people to hold their elected officials accountable, if we cannot do the same at work!
I wish Adil well. He has chosen in this instance to act ethically at a time when journalists in other media are unwilling to speak out against what they know is wrong...perhaps not in any criminal sense, but certainly as standards are lowered in a desperate effort to shore up ratings and circulation. It's good to know there are still some who are willing to do the right thing in journalism.
* Adil Awadh sent me this correction: I have never visited London in my life. I am sorry if I was not clear on this point in my discussions with you. In fact after I refused the ear cutting atrocities, I deserted the army and joined a London based resistance Iraqi group operating in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1996, headed by Eyad Allawi, who later became the Prime Minister in 2004.