When history repeats itself, it wears new masks. It resurfaces issues of journalistic integrity, intellectual security, and political correctness in a realm where truth should always be the priority.
‘History’ is a concept highly distinguishable from the concept of ‘the past’. History has been blessed and cursed with mold-making advancements that make the passing of time worthy of having a title. It is the story of mankind; it is ‘his story’. That means that history is the one and only category that every human both existed in and contributed to. History is what links George Washington and Justin Bieber, Dinosaurs and Goldfish, but most importantly, actions and consequences. One of the most ever-changing concepts feeding history is journalism. Journalism is a rogue warrior that contributes to, learns from, and will continue to alter this history. It is evidence of the validity in the cliché, “History repeats itself”. However, when history does repeat itself, it surprises us in different forms with different levels of severity. The field of journalism has learned to naturally adapt to these challenges for survival, but it is not without controversy. Among the innumerable game changers, I analyzed three periods of time; the time periods that bore the Watergate Scandal, the September 11 Attacks, and the current War on Terrorism (or lack thereof). Such times have forced Journalists to make new molds with new materials. They all share the common issue of selective reporting and the responsibility to be had with time-restricted decisions. As issues grow more radical with time, it becomes evident that the world we live in has been and always will be a cycle of sicknesses that will birth a new illness before remedying the one at large. It is the job of Journalism to bring these sicknesses to the foreground and bear the rewards and consequences of doing so.
If information exists, there will be a demand to either share or contain it. The world now relies on journalists to be the middleman when confidential information is exposed even in the slightest. A time that molded this agenda was when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post sparked an interest and need for investigative journalism. Vice President at large of the Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr., who is also a professor of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, notes that, “Investigative reporting in America did not begin with Watergate. But it became entrenched in American journalism — and has been steadily spreading around the world — largely because of Watergate”. The weight of this time period was enough to make an imprint on the world for variables yet to be largely explored.
Woodward and Bernstein exposed themselves to uncommon risks at the time. Government officials were privy to classified information – but if it leaked to a reporter, was it ethical to leak to the world? The reporters faced a question they had to ask and answer themselves: “who should know what the government knows?” The two journalists also ran the incredible risk of committing libel in their efforts to hold the government accountable for something it has never had to account for before. Woodward and Bernstein assumed the unofficial role of a civilian government governing the governors – because the government would never convict themselves. This was among the first of what has come to be an innumerable amount of instances where the people had to decide whether or not their government violated its own laws. This has resurfaced in the Benghazi Attacks, NSA spying, and other controversial grounds of accusations. Never had a government conspiracy mattered to the world in the way this one did – and the reporters stopped at nothing to unearth it. Since then, the media was made responsible for governing the less governed. Leonard Downie Jr. adds, “No matter how unpopular the news media may sometimes be, there has been, ever since Watergate, an expectation that the press would hold accountable those with power and influence over the rest of us”. Now, the media was the being at large for harvesting and divulging worthy information. Woodward and Bernstein also pushed the limits of how that information could be obtained, and set a precedent for the generation of investigative journalists they sprouted.
Woodward and Bernstein took the leap in investigation that made their names native to households across the country. Leonard Downie Jr. acknowledges, “[their] techniques were hardly original. But, propagated by “All the President’s Men,” they became central to the ethos of investigative reporting: Become an expert on your subject”. The reward of verifiable information grew a need for the highest accuracy of reporting. This would come to push the limits of where future journalists could bring their notepads. Woodward and Bernstein invited themselves into the households of government officials, using sly terminology and roundabout questions to indirectly confirm or deny their claims. They jeopardized their reputations by interpreting head-nods and mind game results as hard truths. With the added factor of Deep Throat, their kind of journalism became double-sourcing known facts as opposed to a nation wide seek-and-find. The success of their precarious reporting sparked a revolution in investigative journalism, where young minds would grow to become the central sleuths of future controversies that would come to bear the suffix ‘gate’. As history repeated itself, journalists could look to Watergate as a learning experience with answers on ethics. What they could not look for is an answer in dangerous unprecedented scenarios.
In a world where media has grown from a handful of prominent media outlets to a sky full of stars, history brought a new friend every time it revisited. On September 11, 2001, this friend was no friend at all. Surprise terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York would yet again come to revolutionize the way news is reported.
Journalists actually placed themselves in grave danger for the sake of fulfilling the need to deliver information. Daily News Editor Robert Huff says, “When a plane hit the first tower, journalists from all over rushed to the World Trade Center, because that’s what they’re supposed to do. Many also came close to dying, too, but they’re reluctant to say it, because the story isn’t about them”. News also became reliant on personal perspectives to convey messages, since so many eyewitnesses were able to provide such detailed footage and descriptions. On that day, the ethics of providing such viewpoints or imagery of the tragic event were challenged in every newsroom across America. Their time-restricted decisions shaped a precedent for what we do and do not see on the news. Also, partially through these decisions, the media seemingly became more dependent on unintentional fear mongering for the sake of driving home imperative messages.
What appeared to be the pinnacle of fear was drilled into the minds of every American. Not only was journalism responsible for detailing the current state of safety, but also it had to redefine what constituted danger. Since then, the smallest threats are now taken heavily in the eyes of the media. This is because any kind of preventative measures that media is able to offer is now considered mandatory for serving the public interest. It is terrorism’s radicalization that radicalized the media. Glenn Halbrooks, with 29 years of professional media experience, says, “Possible violence is now reported, no matter how vague the information”. Then, the Internet, schools, and other innocent environments became exposed to threats that news crews decided to cover critically. Halbrooks added, “News managers find themselves making the same judgment calls as politicians and law enforcement experts. But all these groups now have the wisdom that comes from witnessing and surviving 9/11”. These decisions encroached further into dangerous territory when considering the worldwide accessibility of news.
Foreign affairs became the news for the people, but the Deep Throat for Terrorism. I had the opportunity to speak with Jeffery D. Gordon on the topic of media handling government information and foreign affairs.
J.D. is, as quoted on his website, “the former Pentagon spokesman who served under both Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary Robert Gates from 2005 to 2009, and is a retired Navy Commander. Since leaving the Defense Department, Gordon has served as a Senior Fellow and Communications, Policy Adviser to numerous think tanks, foundations and national political figures. This includes Atlas Economic Research Foundation, Center for a Secure Free Society, Americas Forum, Atlantic Bridge, Center for Security Policy, Let Freedom Ring, the Liberty & Freedom Foundation, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin[,] former presidential candidate, Mr. Herman Cain”, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. “Gordon, a contributing columnist to Fox News and The Washington Times since 2010, has regularly appeared as a national security and foreign policy commentator on a wide variety of international, national and local Washington, DC television and radio outlets in English and Spanish languages. A career Navy public affairs officer with 20 years of active duty service, he has been the on-scene spokesman for numerous internationally newsworthy events.”
J.D. took time between appearances on Your World with Neil Cavuto and programming on Telemundo to speak with me on the issues of media handling foreign policy. When asked if he had ever witnessed a distinguishable change in the way news was reported, he answered, “After 9/11, the media was more careful about reporting classified information or trying to honor the administration’s request to not share classified information”. Terrorist plans of the 9/11 attacks were classified until the very second the first plane crashed. The country saw the success of a plot kept under wraps. The decision to report or not to report was then conceived in the hands of journalists. J.D. noted, “[censorship] only lasted maybe a couple of years before organizations like the New York Times were trying to get as much classified information as they could and put it out there. It took something like 9/11, and it only helps for a couple of years”. Confidential information is now a selling point for Journalism. It is a dishonorable competition to leak information fast – and those who seek to hide such information will die in the jungle of journalism.
If the media were to tell the people what their government had planned in retaliation, they would also be telling the enemy. When publicly announcing and recanting the War on Terror by Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama respectively, the enemy is made aware of our intentions. It is possible that the publication of such information could be the culprit in radicalizing terrorism. History is again repeating itself today, as journalists are faced with the dangers of reporting on ISIS. Journalists are braving territory highlighted by the terrors of 9/11 for news that serves the people in ways that reflect Woodward and Bernstein’s activity with Watergate. This time, history’s repetition wrought a horror of historic proportions. Steven Sotloff and James Foley became modern journalism’s martyrs when ISIS beheaded them on camera. Time Magazine’s editor Nancy Gibbs noted that Sotloff “gave his life so readers would have access to information from some of the most dangerous places in the world”. The efforts to honor the tasks dictated by today’s field journalism have grown dangerous enough to cost many lives over recent years. Now, both journalists and the enemy are using the same methods of communication through the monster that is social media.
Some say it is imperative for the media to cover certain foreign affairs to make the people either assured of our security or aware of imminent danger. However, especially with the Internet, anything published or reported on today becomes available to the entire world. Any kind of public statement of our progress, plans, or pursuits can and will be known by the enemy. Which should we value more? The rights for citizens to know where we stand in relation to the rest of the world, or the power of a quiet government who attacks and defends without letting the enemies have foresight over us? Former Pentagon Spokesman J.D. Gordon responded to this, saying:
“It’s a delicate balance, certainly. We have to protect the first amendment, protect communication… people have to know what their government is doing and it’s important for the media to tell the world what is going on as well. But, there is certainly a balance when you talk about the social media, for instance, and blogs, because Jihadists are using those to recruit and to have more people come to their side to commit terrorist attacks around the world”.
America is facing an abuse of our freedom of speech by the enemy. Overseas, rights are extremely limited and media dictates what the people are allowed to know. J.D. recalls briefing a group of North African supporters in the U.S. on a state department visit.
They asked him about some of the releases from Guantanamo. J.D. told them the truth in regards to how they go about risk factors and detainee transferring. The Algerian reporter misquoted J.D., claiming that “[Algerians] decide who comes back, and not the U.S.” The U.S. Ambassador was actually summoned to see the Foreign Minister of Algeria in response to a blame placed on Gordon. He made a point that, even though he spoke the truth, the foreign reporters decided they had their own version of the truth to report. J.D. remarked, “Sometimes, you can even speak the truth from the Pentagon, and that’s not what the system that you want to partner with [is] all about. Not all of our allies and partners in other countries that we share goals with are necessarily truthful. In fact, many of them are untruthful”. Truthfulness is a mandatory part of serving the public interest. However, some American outlets have found ways to use current events to selectively tell the truth.
Selective reporting is a negative repercussion of the growth of journalism. Many outlets are available, but few are powerful enough to resonate with the American people on government actions and foreign affairs. J.D. Gordon stated he was disappointed with the way outlets like the New York Times or the Washington Post handled certain information, claiming they politicize vital information. He used their inconsistent reporting of waterboarding in the Bush administration and drone strikes in the Obama administration as an example. The papers either selectively reported negatively or remained silent to not cast negative light respective to each administration. J.D. contemplated, “It’s really incredible how some of our major media really distorts facts by either accentuating some details or leaving others out. It’s really incredible. People ought to pay attention or push back on it”.
The internal war amongst journalist viewpoints is not helping anyone. Specifically with the recent ISIS attacks in Paris, journalists have raged either for or against the spread of “Islamophobia”. It is disgraceful when the Internet, a universal medium through which the people obtain news, is the same medium used by the enemy to openly threaten us. ABC News reports that ISIS “quickly claimed credit for the deadly Paris attacks [on November 13, 2015]”, and “said that the carnage in France was just the beginning”. The same group also issued a direct threat to the United States of America through an Internet video. In response, Senators and Governors are reported on social media outlets for their call to action against accepting Syrian Refugees in our country. However, citizens are using their own forms of independent journalism through Twitter to trend the topic of “Islamophobia”. Popular news outlets inform them that certain networks and individuals are condemning ‘all’ Islamic people as opposed to looking for a solution. This is a prime example of news distortion. Obviously, not all Muslims are Terrorists. However, it would only take an understanding of what the anagram I.S.I.S. stands for to deduce that the Terrorists are Muslims. When asked about this, J.D. Gordon expressed concern for the current state of American reporting. He said:
“Islamophobia is a fake term made up by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates. [It] is just a cover for labeling anybody who has any type of concern of what is going on with Islam today: Radical Islam. It just paints us as Islamophobes, racists, and xenophobes. It’s garbage, nonsense, and people ought to push back at every opportunity”.
It appears that some forms of journalism may be converting to a state of encouraging ignorance instead of informing the people of what kind danger we are truly facing. The majority of Muslims is peaceful, but they unfortunately share the same title and religion as radical terrorists. In turn, some Americans show their hearts while hiding their brains. ‘Political correctness’ is tossed around in journalism, creating a gaping void of truth with lack of responsibility to serve the public interest.
History has become our story. It finds ways to resurface, wearing masks of new risks and challenges for us to take and overcome. With Watergate, journalism learned to be an investigative machine that stops at nothing to uncover truth. With the September 11, 2001 Attacks, journalism learned to pose as an outlet for safety precautions. With today’s threat of ISIS, journalism sees a rift between political correctness and truth. Each attack resurfaced a similar issue whilst adding a new one. Through Watergate, we learned that journalists have a say in the concealed affairs of our government. Through 9/11, we learned that journalists have the duty of reporting while protecting. Through ISIS, we learned that journalists run an extreme risk in reporting and altering the state of our country’s safety. The enemy will challenge safety, freedom, knowledge, and intelligence as long as those factors exist. Journalism will forever run its cycle of reporting, defending, and altering our security as it has throughout history. In retaliation, the future will stitch the pieces of journalism together again, ultimately repeating the act of writing the course of such history.