In 1998, when Kevin Klose came on board as new president of NPR, a startling interview was aired on All Things Considered, the kind that stays with anyone who cares about an honest story. "You've been named president at NPR after leading the world-wide propaganda services of our government. I suppose that represents a bit of a shift for you," opened the interviewer. "There's not a dime's worth of difference between [those] and National Public Radio," said Klose.
An interesting glimpse of the political culture that exists at our country's largest "public" news organization occurred when reporter Anne Garrels, on tour with her book, Naked in Baghdad, spoke to a crowd at Fearrington this month. After an engaging talk about reporting from Baghdad, it was time for questions and comments from the audience. One listener asked for her opinion of NPR's coverage of the run-up to the war and the invasion. "It was not NPR's finest hour," said Garrels.
But when another listener praised the war coverage in British newspapers--notably the reports by Robert Fisk in the London-based Independent, Garrels attacked Fisk's reputation, saying he is not respected by his fellow reporters, because he "plays loose with the facts."
While her words may poison his reputation among those who don't know the British journalist's work, those who heard his remarkable lecture here last November know better. Fisk is the most experienced western reporter in the Middle East. His profession regularly names him Foreign Correspondent of the Year. While a few British reporters may wish he'd retire so they can have a better chance at recognition, I think Garrels' defensiveness is about something else.
These are not the first petulant comments to be heard heard from NPR reporters over comparisons with journalism that's more in keeping with the best work of NPR's earlier years. There is an important contrast between NPR's now-complacent style versus the network's earlier history of empowering the public to defend its interests, and to stand up to reckless policies. Neil Conan spoke the same way in a Greensboro appearance after Gulf War I.
When missiles struck a marketplace in Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq, both Garrels and Fisk described scenes of horrible suffering. But a contrast emerged between the two. Maybe it was Fisk's knowledge of Arabic, thus his full independence from translators and false guides, but he alone reported the serial number of a missile fragment that his readers traced via the internet to a Raytheon plant in Texas.
Even though U.S. listeners immediately forwarded the British reports to NPR, the foreign desk censored this inconvenient evidence regarding civilian casualties. For days NPR repeated the Pentagon's claim that Iraqi missiles exploded in the marketplace. No mention was ever made of the U.S. serial numbers. So who plays loose with the facts, and what else does NPR suppress? "Who are you going to believe, ME, or your lyin' eyes?" is the punch line to a joke told by Molly Ivins, about a politician whose wife found him sexually involved with another woman.
What is it worth to the engineers of this war, to place a few carefully chosen translators within reach of an NPR reporter in Iraq, for her to choose the "most reliable" one as a guide? Would NPR's president interfere with such a tactic, even if he heard about it? What if it were presented to him as a safety measure, to place someone equipped to protect the reporter in the most able way?
During NPR's more independent years, a long interview was broadcast with whistleblower John Stockwell, National Security Council member and the highest level CIA agent ever to go public with criticism of indefensible and counterproductive actions. Stockwell had been in charge of a major disinformation campaign on Angola, and he spoke out for many years on the lies told to Americans, while the rest of the world, especially those in the targeted regions, could clearly see our government's willful resource-grabbing and manipulative actions.
Stockwell has also reminded us that there is more money in the CIA's "black budget" for unspecified media projects than the major networks spend, combined, on international reporting. But critical voices like Stockwell's were hard to find at NPR during the run-up to the war, while the network's talk shows were loaded with opportunists from Washington think-tanks and "security experts" whose income increases in direct proportion to the success of fear-mongering among the American public. Meanwhile, when the administration's plans for war go unchallenged by our best critics, we all end up robbed, both in dollars and moral standing.
In a nice coincidence, NPR's Morning Edition featured war correspondent Martha Gellhorn's life. She was praised as a reporter with compassion and a healthy scorn for hypocrisy and lies... exactly the combination that gets Fisk into trouble. A web search on Gellhorn found this press release: "Robert Fisk, of the Independent (London), has won the 2003 Martha Gellhorn Award for his journalism in general and especially for his dispatches from Iraq."
"The award is given every year to a journalist whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth, validated by powerful facts, that exposes establishment propaganda, or 'official drivel', as Martha Gellhorn called it. Robert Fisk's work fits this description perfectly."
Garrels referred to things not being what they seem in Iraq, and stories inverting, and inverting again. With NPR having forsaken its former critical independence, local stations WNCU 90.7 (with Free Speech Radio News and Tavis Smiley during evening drivetime) and WFSS 91.9 (with Alternative Radio and Making Contact, 3-5 Sunday afternoon) are filling in the gaps as best they can. It remains to be seen if WUNC radio is willing to air programs that still remember the public interest role for which public radio was established, and put independent voices on the air here in North Carolina.
Jerry Markatos is co-founder of Balance & Accuracy in Journalism, a media discussion group that meets the second Wednesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. in the Community Church of Chapel Hill.