National Commentary

The Death of Journalism? Part 4

nfbentonpicThis week’s robust U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the prospect of a U.S. military attack on Syria, in advance of the congressional vote sought by President Obama last weekend, has been an enormous breath of fresh air.

They’ve brought the American people in on the kind of serious deliberations and debate that is so vital and that has been so lacking in U.S. military decisions the last 40 years.

With this column, I conclude a four-part series on the viability of journalism in the U.S. today, delivered in honor of the legacy of Helen Thomas, the great American original who died at age 91 on July 20. She spent the last 13 months of her storied, trailblazing 60 year professional career as a journalist working for me.

The integrity of American journalism was called sharply into question by Thomas in the last decade.

Firstly, it was by her book, “Watchdogs of Democracy?” (2006), which was a scathing critique as a first-hand witness of the failure of her White House press corps colleagues to take on the flimsy pretext for the George W. Bush administration’s unprovoked 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Secondly, it was by the impact of journalism’s wholesale abdication of its independent role when it acceded to pressure from a political lobby in 2010 to hound Thomas out of her White House seat and claim to legacy as a bonafide pioneer for women in the professions.

In both cases, the performance of American journalism was shameful and an indicator of a very dangerous trend: that by becoming lapdogs rather than watchdogs, journalism’s failure threatened the very tenets of the democracy that it played a seminal role in founding.

As journalism was slumbering under George W. Bush, the government, the military and its intelligence arms turned everything secret. Except for a “smoke and mirrors” charade of falsehoods that Gen. Colin Powell was arm-twisted to present to the United Nations on the eve of the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration was disingenuously secretive and evasive – and with the aid of its faux Fox News, allowing whole segments of the U.S. population to believe that the Iraq invasion was a response to 911 – about major developments in the Iraq, prohibiting photographers to chronicle the arrival of American flag-draped coffins arriving at the Dover Air Force Base and many other things.

Under the cloak of such secrecy, the National Security Agency (NSA) built a mammoth “1984”-style spy octopus with virtually no constraints that we now know engaged in incredible violations of the privacy of ordinary American citizens.

How did these things finally come to light?

It was by the extraordinary courage of a handful of new-generation journalists and their sources whose “whistle blowing” sent the entire U.S. establishment into a rage, including a majority of its become-pliant lapdog journalists.

The revelations that Americans can thank Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, all of whom made incredible sacrifices for their work, and others, has strengthened the American democracy in exactly the ways we have seen at work in the Senate hearings this week.

The healthy skepticism that was unleashed in an aroused American public by these figures compelled President Obama to open the debate, deliberations and decisions on a U.S. military action to the full Congress.

That’s exactly what a robust free press is supposed to cause to happen. Without it, everybody sleeps as their civil liberties, and the reliability and integrity of their government, melt away.

I published my first newspaper at age seven. I feel I was “born with ink in my veins.” Seven days before I was born in 1944, the legendary newspaperman William Allen White died. He was the eloquent Kansan who was one of the few in the U.S. to speak out loudly against the rise of fascism in Europe, and who ran for office only once, to defeat a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

I’m not his reincarnation, but we’ve shared the same primogenitor, as did Helen Thomas, who was just beginning her first job as a reporter that same year: a passionate disposition and love for everything that a true democracy embodies.