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An Austin Tradition! Before Central Market_ Before Whole foods… \\-m {here was Whealsville… We re your community-owned grocery store! Experience shopping on a human scale! food co-op 3191 Guadalupe 478-2667./ Since 1976 some journalists, like their fellow citizens, get caught up in war hysteria, and simply don’t care about distractions such as international law. In other cases, reporters might make the effort, only to find their stories spiked by more “patriotic” editors. But from my own experience as a journalist and as an observer of journalism, I know it can some times be more complex. My interaction with one journalist gives some hints about just how hard it is to buck the tide when the United States goes to war. I happened to be traveling the day after the bombing started. I picked up the local paper and read a story by a staff reporter, headlined “Q&A: Answers to key questions about the attack.” One of those questions was the legality of the bombing. Instead of answering it fully, the story simply parroted the administration’s standard line: existing U.N. resolutions give us the authority to bomb. No critique of that position was offered. I happen to know this reporter \(we’ll call person, both about international affairs and the limits of mainstream news media. So, I called Joe and suggested his story was incomplete. I offered the names of several legal experts who could provide the analysis. Joe said that he was working on a story for the next day about local experts’ reactions to the bombing and that he would keep my points in mind. The next day’s story included some critical views of the bombing, but mostly on pragmatic grounds. The local human-rights lawyer tapped for comment sidestepped the issue, acknowledging that there was no U.N. authority for the attack, but adding that ‘legal’ may not be the most important concept here.” So, Joe’s first story raised the question but buried it under administration obfuscation. The second story buried it further by giving the administration’s distortions the blessing of a human-rights lawyer. A few days later, Joe and I talked in detail about the incident. He said that initially he had felt he had struck a blow for critical journalism simply by including the legal question in the first day’s Q&A, since most papers were ignoring the issue completely. My call had caught him off-guard, he said, and made him think twice about his small victory. Joe said he had thought that the way in which he had written the story would telegraph to readers that the administration’s rationalization was shaky, but that I was probably right in suggesting that wouldn’t happen. Reporters often sneak in “a coded reference to some frightening topic, but don’t realize that readers don’t know the code,” he said. When I pressed the critique, suggesting that his second story had not been an improvement, he bristled a bit. He fell back on a defense of neutral procedures. He had been given an assignment to get expert reaction. He had called a variety of experts, most of whom he did not know well enough to know their position. They had said what they said, and he put it in the paper. But given that he knew a compelling alternative analysis existed and he knew who could provide it, I responded, had he not failed readers by ignoring it in the story? Joe countered: His assignment was to get expert reaction, not to get all possible expert reactions or any specific reaction. The more I pressed, the more he leaned on the neutrality argument. Such an argument is common from journalists. What made the interaction with Joe somewhat surreal is that he and I have had a number of discussions over the past decade about the limits of mainstream journalism and the problems with the cult of objectivity and neutrality. We had talked many times about how structural forces limited the political spectrum in the United States. Yet, when pressed, he was relying on a modified and slightly more deft version of the same old arguments. We split the lunch check and parted on friendly terms. I still consider him one of the more thoughtful reporters I know. Despite our disagreements about particulars of this story, we weren’t far apart on our critique of the industry. As Joe put it, “This great machine decides what the questions are, and we scribes implement the script.” And on this story, we both knew, the script called for no discussion of simple points that would lead to simple conclusions: that the U.S. attack was illegal, and the U.S. president and top advisers should be hauled into international court and convicted of war crimes. Robert Jensen is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at U.T.Austin. Don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on it. ;._ I J. . _…,… t….,..,…. _ .. … ‘ _ .. ____ -7: 0 . “S… ___ — , .r . . s `..t : . . 7!: . . I :4 1-“. ‘ : I 11 .. 1 ” t a e . -%-“” . 4…. t u. . The Lege is in session. Read about it in the Observer. I want to subscribe to The Texas Observer. NAME ADDRESS CITY, STATE, ZIP 1 YEAR$32 2 YEARS$59 3 YEARS$84 CHECK ENCLOSED BILL ME 307 W. 7th St. Austin, TX 78701 512/477-0746 Fax 512/474-1175 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23 JANUARY 22, 1999