April 27 2004
Journalists Who Lie, Journalists Who Die
A veteran journalist assesses the international trend of journalists
targeted for their truth-telling against a backdrop of recent fraud
in American newsrooms.
By Betty Medsger (more by author)
I wonder if Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and Stephen Glass, the best
known of American journalism’s recently discovered practitioners of
fraud, know about Manik Saha, Sajid Tanoli and Ruel Endrinal. While
the U.S. trio wrote stories composed of lies, the other three
journalists were among the many journalists in other countries who
paid the ultimate price for revealing the truth.
Manik Saha, a veteran journalist in Bangladesh for the daily New Age
and BBC’s Bengali-language service, died January 15 when a bomb was
hurled at his rickshaw and decapitated him. He was well known in his
home country for bold reporting on criminal gangs, drug traffickers,
and Maoist insurgents.
Sajid Tanoli, a reporter with the Urdu-language daily Shumal in
Pakistan, was shot and killed in Pakistan January 29 by a local
government official who was enraged about an article Tanoli had
written a few days earlier about an allegedly illegal liquor business
run by the official.
…most journalists who were killed were hunted down and murdered,
often in direct reprisal for their reporting.
Ruel Endrinal was killed February 11 by two unidentified gunmen. They
shot him in the foot and then continued shooting him in the head and
body until he fell dead. His death is believed by investigators to be
the price he paid for speaking out against local politicians and
criminal gangs on a political commentary program he hosted on a
broadcast outlet in Legazpi City in the eastern Philippines.
It is a striking aspect of the changing international journalism
landscape that American journalism, however fine much of it is,
currently is best known for the fraud some journalists have committed
as journalists, sinking their own careers and damaging the reputation
of the profession by reporting stories that were lies in full or in
part. Blair, Kelley, and Glass have become household names, symbols
of a corruption and malaise that many in and out of journalism fear
may be far more widespread than we now know. In recent weeks I’ve
heard several very worried editors, most of them people who have
judged major journalism competitions, wonder how many more are hiding
in their newsrooms.
The slashes to journalism’s reputation have occurred with painful
frequency since 1998. They have ranged from a lack of editorial
involvement at CNN, Time Magazine, the San Jose Mercury and the
Cincinnati Enquirer that led to publication and broadcast of major
accusations the truth of which is still unknown. In some cases,
journalists were condemned because of accusations of criminal
activity in the gathering of information (the Enquirer) and in other
instances because of insufficient evidence for powerful claims. Since
dozens of journalists have been forced out of the profession for
fabricating and distorting.
Meanwhile, Saha, Tamoli, and Endrinal and many others were killed.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists
(CPJ), an international organization that defends the right of
journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal, their plight
represents a tragic trend: the literal killing of the messenger by
people who don’t want truth revealed. Every week there are new
reports on the CPJ website of deaths of journalists or threats to
journalists and news organizations for trying to reveal the truth.
Some current ones:
· April 11: Four Armenian journalists were seriously beaten in
Yerevan simply for covering an opposition rally.
· April 13: Early morning arson destroyed the building that housed
the printing presses of the biweekly The Independent in Banjul in
Gambia. Six armed men stormed the building, fired guns, then doused
printing equipment with gasoline and set it on fire. When journalists
arrived at the scene, the armed arsonists tried to lock them inside
the burning building.
· April 12: Three Czech journalists and a Japanese journalist were
abducted in Iraq. Their captors threatened to burn the Japanese
journalist alive, along with two Japanese aid workers, if Japan did
not recall its troops from Iraq.
· April 9: Cheng Yizhong, editor-in-chief of Nanfang Dushi Bao, a
weekly newspaper in the Guangdoing Province in China, was arrested on
suspicion of corruption. His home was searched and publications about
Chinese politics were confiscated. As people in the region have come
to depend on the newspaper for investigative reporting about issues
important to them, such as the beating death of a student last year
while in police custody, the government took steps against the
These and other recent actions against journalists in other countries
contrast sharply with the breaking in the U.S. of the de facto
promise journalists have with the public to provide truthful accounts
There is a strong impression among many that journalists are killed
primarily in the crossfire of wars and street violence. Research by
CPJ found instead most journalists who were killed were hunted down
and killed, often in direct reprisal for their reporting. Of the 346
journalists killed in the last 10 years for carrying out their work,
only 55 journalists, 17 percent of the total killed, died in
crossfire, while 263, 76 percent, were killed in reprisal for their
reporting. The others were killed in other violent situations, such
as violent street demonstrations.
In its investigations of slayings of journalists in the last decade,
CPJ, a New York-based organization that tracks attacks against
journalists and defends press freedoms, found only 25 cases in which
the person or persons who ordered or carried out a journalist’s
killing have been arrested and prosecuted. That means that in more
than 90 percent of the cases, those who killed journalists did so
with impunity. The motive usually was to prevent journalists from
reporting on corruption or human rights abuses, or to punish them
after they have done so. Of the 263 who were murdered, 53 were
threatened before they were killed. In 20 cases, journalists were
kidnapped and subsequently killed. While the kidnap and murder of
Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 is well known,
there have been several cases, most notably in Algeria and Turkey,
where journalists have disappeared and never been seen again after
being taken into custody either by government or opposition forces.
More than 30 journalists were killed during the last decade in
Russia, 19 of them targeted, often by the mafia, in retaliation for
their stories, according to CPJ. In Chechnya, 11 were killed in
crossfire or by mines, but at least four were killed there for their
reporting on the war, usually for investigating human rights abuses
by the Russian military. In Rwanda 16 journalists were killed in the
last decade, 14 of them massacred by Rwandan Armed Forces and Hutu
militias in April 1994.
…in more than 90 percent of the cases, those who killed journalists
did so with impunity.Like their fallen and imprisoned colleagues
abroad, most American journalists produce honest work that they hope
will help citizens be informed and active participants in democracy.
They realize that the use of false information destroys trust, the
most essential ingredient in the bond between journalists and the
public, and they are rigorous in their efforts to be accurate.
In addition to being tainted by the actions of journalists who have
lied, American journalists have been criticized in the past year for
being timid in their coverage before the war against Iraq. Some
critics say journalists should have displayed more skepticism and
independence in their coverage of the Bush Administration’s case for
going to war, including the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass
destruction. Given what we now know could have been known before the
war started, that criticism carries serious implications for the
potential power of missing information in a democracy.
Some foreign journalists are startled when they look at the
malfeasance that has been occurring here since 1998.
Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti, who has endured severe
persecution for his reporting, wrote eloquently in 1998 of the
influence of American journalists in inspiring some of the most
important investigative reporting in Latin America in the last two
decades. There, in national cultures in which journalists often had a
reputation for corruption, the ones who boldly revealed official
corruption gained the confidence and respect of the public. In
numerous instances, governments have been forced to change, indeed,
have forced out, because of stories that revealed corruption.
“…..The influence of American journalism was decisive,” wrote
Gorriti. “Its principles of thoroughness, fact-checking, editing, the
effective separation between editors and publishers – all this
influenced us profoundly.
“Given these standards, we can scarcely fathom the recent
journalistic wreckage in the United States. How did competence and
integrity dissipate in so many American newsrooms?”
We need to search for the answers to his question. We also need to
ask how the trust can be rebuilt – among journalists and between
journalists and the public. Since public relations has come to
dominate many public and private institutions, people have felt that
it was very difficult, if not impossible, to separate fact from spin
in news stories. In the present season of malfeasance, many readers
feel they are being asked to separate fact from fiction. What a
mockery of the trust essential between journalists and the public,
and what a mockery of the courage displayed daily by journalists
everywhere who risk their lives in order to deliver truthful
information to the public.
There probably are numerous personal and institutional factors that
have contributed to the individual acts of dishonesty that are now
being revealed. Surely one of them is me-ism, an overwhelming
preoccupation with the promotion and success of the self. For that
reason, I think it is unlikely that Blair, Kelley and Glass could
understand the idealism that shaped the courage of Saha, Tanoli and
Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter, was the founder of
the Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San
Francisco State University. She currently is a writer and journalism
education consultant based in New York. ([email protected])