Bleeding the Black Ink

Journalism: Look back and looking ahead

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By now most of us are familiar with the capture and rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch during the war with Iraq.

Lynch, a 19-year-old army clerk from Palestine, W. Va., was captured when her company took a wrong turn outside Nasiriya and was ambushed.

The original stories of her emptying her M16 into the enemy and being shot and stabbed before her ultimate capture were arguably one of the most patriotic and inspiring moments of the war.

It was the stuff of cinema. Steven Spielberg or Jerry Bruckheimer couldn't have put together a better celluloid scenario.

But now it appears that there was actually little truth in how Lynch was captured and there are reports that the Iraqi military abandoned the hospital where Lynch was being held the day before U.S. forces arrived to make the daring rescue.

When the story broke, papers, such as the Washington Post, relied on anonymous sources to recount Lynch's capture.

The Pentagon provided footage of the daring rescue of Lynch from an Iraqi hospital, which government officials had edited and media outlets ate up.

No one can question the bravery of Lynch and the Special Forces that went to rescue her. One can't even really blame the government for trying to put its own spin on it. But the media should be held accountable for simply accepting this story as told without any seeming independent confirmation. What was unique about the war in Iraq was the concept of "embedded reporters" -- correspondents assigned to specific military units who would travel with the troops as the combat ensued.

But did journalism take a step back when it made this "deal with the devil?"

At the turn of the 20th Century, newspapers were partisan -- they served as political organs propagating the message of particular parties.

They also had commercial interests and their lack of objectivity was glaring. Reporters were seen as "hacks and whores."

But there were newspaper leaders, notably Joseph Pulitzer, who realized the problem and tried to stem the tide of "yellow journalism."

Pulitzer, who was even unhappy with his own product, the New York World, pushed for more education for reports, promoted professionalism in journalists, provided the endowment for the Columbia Journalism school and created the Pulitzer Prize to reward journalistic excellence.

Because of these changes, the 20th century saw a gradual rise in the education level of reporters and by 1961, 51 percent of journalists had college degrees.

The 1960s and '70s saw a peak in journalistic excellence based on objectivity and investigative practices. The media asked hard questions during the war in Vietnam and through these reports it was revealed that enemy body counts were exaggerated and that government officials were not telling the truth about the conflict.

The media played a role in President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to seek re-election in 1968 and weakened public support for the war. Whether these were "positive" or "negative" impacts still are debatable but the media's contribution to these events are undeniable.

The overall pursuit to inform the public about what was really going on also was undeniable.

And then there was Watergate.

This could be considered the glory period for journalism. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were low-level reporters at the time but they, and other staff members of the Washington Post, showed the ultimate power of the press. They showed that abuses and cover-ups, even at the highest level, could be exposed and public officials held accountable.

But this is the same Washington Post that seemed to have been spoon-fed the Lynch capture story without question.

Journalism, as with any industry, continues to grow and go through phases. Maybe its time for the media to remember where it's been as it moves forward into the next century.

"Bleeding the Black Ink" is a weekly column that aims at getting readers better acquainted with the Craig Daily Press, the First Amendment and the newspaper industry. Do you have a question or an issue for an upcoming column? Call Terrance Vestal at 824-7031 or email him at tvestal@craigdailypress.com.

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