Forgive Us Our Press Passes


Photographer Criticised

There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.  This kind of photography is realism.
But realism is not enough - there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.

- Robert Frank

A photographer has come under fire in China for his pictures of a man falling off a bicycle.  The man came a spectacular cropper in Xiamen city after his bike hit a pot-hole submerged in rainwater.  But photographer Liu Tao was accused of lying in wait to take his pictures instead of warning people of the danger.  Readers of the Beijing Youth Daily, which published the shots, wrote in to express their feelings.

One wrote: "The pictures are well shot, but the person who shot this is disgusting.  He knew there was a pit, but was waiting there for someone to fall over."  And another said: "The photographer should really be condemned since he knew there definitely would be other victims."

Liu defended himself, saying: "I just knew that the city government has paved the pit, and without my pictures, the pit would not be noticed by the government, and there would perhaps be more people falling over."

Source: photo credit Lu Feng

Photographer Puts Focus on Privacy Debate

by James Rainey

Omar Vega did not come to San Francisco State University to be just another freshman.  The award-winning photographer intended to make his mark.  And, in a fashion, he did.  Vega's pictures of partying, binge drinking, oral sex and, in particular, an alleged car burglary, thrust him into the centre of a debate among photojournalists over their rights and responsibilities.

Vega, 18, and his supporters say he fulfilled a righteous mission through pictures published in the student newspaper or those he posted on the Internet: enhancing public knowledge about life in the university's freshman dormitories.  His critics, including some students and campus housing authorities, counter that the photographer was more voyeur than journalist and violated the privacy of fellow students.  They accuse the Stockton teen of condoning and even abetting the alleged car burglary and other provocative activities.

Consequently, the university evicted Vega from his dorm room on the 5th floor of Mary Park Hall.  He faces the possibility of additional discipline when school resumes this week.  And he has become the subject of a furious online debate among fellow photojournalists on whether he crossed ethical lines.

A 1st Amendment law firm is prepared to fight to overturn Vega's eviction and to contest the university's housing department rules, which require advance permission and 24-hour notice before the press can take pictures in the dorms.  Emilia Mayorga of the firm of Kerr & Wagstaffe said the average student has more freedom to take pictures in San Francisco State's dorms than a student journalist such as Vega, who also lived in the dorm.  "That's precisely the type of media discrimination that the 1st Amendment was established to prevent," Mayorga said.

Those who knew him growing up in Stockton are not surprised to find Vega, the son of an Army veteran, in the thick of the action again.  While a student at Bear Valley High School, he ventured to Southern California to take pictures of the 2003 wildfires.  At San Francisco State, Vega quickly won a freelance assignment from the student newspaper, Golden Gate XPress, to compile a photo essay on freshman dorm life.  Vega saw his camera as a "great icebreaker" in meeting other students.  Professional photographers envied the unrestricted access he had.  And Vega employed a no-holds-barred approach to documenting the hothouse existence of teenagers living away from home for the first time.

It wasn't long before student housing authorities accused him of failing to obtain the required permission to take pictures within the dorm.  D J Morales, the university's director of residential life, also complained that Vega failed to heed instructions to back off as firefighters tried to free a student trapped in a dorm elevator; took pictures in an "intrusive and insensitive" way during a campus memorial service for a student killed in a fall and "went around soliciting sex for his camera," to fulfill an assignment about changing mores regarding oral sex.  Vega argued that in each of the cases he had obeyed directions and went out of his way to make sure students knew their pictures could be published.

"I would describe Omar as someone who has gotten the photojournalism gene," said Ken Kobre, a San Francisco State photojournalism professor and author of a standard text on the subject.  "Mom and dad are paying for the dorm.  We [taxpayers] are all paying for the dorm.  And we really do deserve to see what is going on inside our public institutions ... [without] being thwarted by housing officials who are embarrassed," Kobre said.

Some students admired his dedication.  Others got a kick out of the outrageous subjects he tried to shoot.  At least a few felt overwhelmed by Vega's "big personality," as one said, or disgusted when he persisted in seeking subjects for the oral sex story.  The brash photographer's feud with campus housing officials finally boiled over after an incident in late October.  As Vega, who took several pictures of the incident, described it: When a student found a set of car keys outside the dormitory on a Sunday night, about half a dozen friends decided to try to find the car that went with the keys.  Vega said he grabbed his camera and tagged along.  At least two students rummaged around inside the car and one of the students later told him that CDs and $8 had been stolen.  The students threw the keys in the bushes and returned to the dorm.

After intense debate, the student newspaper decided against immediate publication of the pictures: Even if the car burglary had been verified, it didn't seem to represent a newsworthy campus trend.  But Vega, without consulting his peers or faculty members, posted five pictures of the incident on a photographer's website for professional photographers.  The response to the black-and-white images was fast and, at least initially, furious.

"If you have a choice between taking a photo and stopping someone from being victimized, stop the crime, period," wrote one photographer, typical of dozens who "flamed" Vega via a website message board.  "Your calling as a journalist is not more important.  You are not more important."

Another website member woke Vega with an early morning phone call, angrily suggesting the teenager had sullied the reputation of all his peers.  But other professional "shooters" jumped to his defense, saying if he had called police he would have violated a professional precept - that journalists cannot record events if they interrupt them.  "He did not affect the situation he was put into.  He recorded it for history," wrote one photographer.  "When you break it down, that is what a good journalist does."

Another supporter argued that such photos, in theory, could heighten awareness about car thefts and lead to an increase in security.  Experts say the heated conflict among professional photographers is not surprising.  "You have a set of colliding values here," said Kelly McBride, head of the ethics faculty of the Poynter Institute, a St Petersburg, Florida-based school for professional journalists.  "The primary value in journalism is to tell the truth.  But to act independently is another very important value in journalism.  That's why reporters and photographers don't want to be seen as tools of the government."  McBride said a photographer in Vega's situation could consider a variety of options, from confronting the students about the theft, to reporting it to the car owner, to informing housing officials or the police.  Journalists joining the Vega debate generally agreed that some circumstances - witnessing an assault or kidnapping in progress, for instance - require them to drop their purely journalistic mission and intervene.

Vega's Internet posting of the car break-in created such a storm that campus police received phone calls from around the country and as far away as South Korea.  In a formal ruling just before Christmas, Morales, of the housing office, evicted Vega, finding he had "demonstrated disregard for a fellow resident's personal property" by "conspiring, aiding or abetting" in the car theft.  At least one other participant was kicked out of the dorm.  Campus police will file a report after school resumes and the district attorney's office will have to decide whether any of the students will be criminally charged.

Vega said he will probably find off-campus housing or continue living with relatives in Oakland, but will continue his appeal in hopes of overturning the finding that he abetted the alleged burglary.  But he did did not spend his winter break stewing over his fate.  He began an internship at the Oakland Tribune, then was drawn by another story.  He flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he has been capturing scenes of the devastation from the tsunami.

Source: Los Angeles Times Los Angeles, California 23 January 2005 page B4

18 Tales of Media Censorship

I suppose that many of you may have heard that I have been, in the past, very hostile and brutal to members of the Fourth Estate.
And these are lies, vicious rumours, strarted by a few disgruntled members of the press that I happened to run over with my car.

- Frank Sinatra

by Michelle Goldberg

Between them, the authors of the incendiary new book Into the Buzzsaw, out this month from Prometheus, have won nearly every award journalism has to give - a Pulitzer, several Emmys, a Peabody, a prize from Investigative Reporters and Editor, an Edward R Murrow and several accolades from the Society of Professional Journalists.  One is veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and a best-selling author, another is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

And most of them are considered, at best, marginal by the mainstream media.  At worst, they've been deemed incompetent and crazy for having the audacity to uncover evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by government agencies and corporate octopi.

Edited by ex-CBS producer Kristina Borjesson, Into the Buzzsaw is a collection of essays, mostly by serious journalists excommunicated from the media establishment for tackling subjects like the CIA's role in drug smuggling, lies perpetuated by the investigators of TWA flight 800, POWs rotting in Vietnam, a Korean war massacre, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Bush's election, bovine growth hormone's dangers and a host of other unpopular issues.  Borjesson describes "the buzzsaw" as "what can rip through you when you try to investigate or expose anything this country's large institutions - be they corporate or government - want to keep under wraps.  The system fights back with official lies, disinformation, and stonewalling.  Your phone starts acting funny.  Strange people call you at strange hours to give you strange information.  The FBI calls you.  Your car is broken into and the thief takes your computer and your reporter's notebook and leaves everything else behind ...  The sense of fear and paranoia is, at times, overwhelming."

The majority of the 18 pieces in Borjesson's book are about hard-working mainstream journalists, dedicated to the ideals of their profession, who stumble into the buzzsaw and have their careers and reputations eviscerated.  Though the subjects and personalities involved are wildly diverse, the stories echo each other in disturbing ways.  Journalists are sent by their bosses to do their jobs - in the case of Borjesson, to investigate the crash of TWA Fight 800 as a producer for CBS news.  Sometimes what they find is impolitic, other times it brings threats of corporate lawsuits.  Suddenly, editors kill the story, or demand changes.  In some instances, like that of TV reporter Jane Akre, who was investigating the use of Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormone, reporters are ordered to insert outright lies in their pieces or face firing.  Other times, like with Gerard Colby's book about the Du Pont family and Gary Webb's San Jose Mercury News series about the CIA's role in the crack epidemic, the bosses are spooked after the fact and withdraw their support from work already published, hanging reporters out to dry.

In the aftermath of Enron, plenty of journalists came forward to publicly wring their hands about the press's failure to catch the story before it destroyed the life savings of thousands.  Since then, though, there's been little sign of renewed vigilance towards malfeasance at other companies, even though many have written that Enron's business practices weren't particularly unusual.  Without addressing Enron directly, Into the Buzzsaw makes it pretty clear why this is by showing how journalists who took on companies like Monsanto and Du Pont were abandoned by their own editors and publishers and embroiled in lawsuits.

When they speak out, buzzsaw victims are usually treated as paranoid conspiracy theorists.  Competing outlets valiantly defend the status quo - The New York Times, The Washington Post and the LA Times launched concurrent attacks on Gary Webb's series, eventually derailing his career and causing his paper to print a retraction (though not of any specific facts mentioned in the story).  Writing of this episode in is book Whiteout, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair said, "From the savage assaults on Webb by other members of his profession, those unfamiliar with the series might have assumed that Webb had made a series of wild and unsubstantiated charges, long on dramatic speculation and short of specific data or sourcing.  In fact, Webb's series was succinct and narrowly focused."

Borjesson was subject to similar attempts at character assassination by her former peers.  After Borjesson was fired from CBS, she was asked to develop a pilot for a new investigative series to be overseen by Oliver Stone.  She gathered over 30 eyewitnesses who disputed the official government story, but before production even started, other journalists started sneering at the project.  Newsweek called Stone the "latest conspiracy crank to delve into the mysterious crash."  Time Magazine chimed in with an article headlined "The Conspiracy Channel?"  The New York Times dismissed Borjesson's reporting simply because government agencies denied its truth (never mind they were the very agencies Borjesson was investigating).

There's something of an X-Files feel to a lot of these stories, though not in the way that condescending guardians of official truth think.  Rather, their surreal feeling comes from the first-person experiences of people finding the institutions they've served all their lives suddenly turning on them.  As Borjesson writes, "Walk into the buzzsaw and you'll cut right to this layer of reality.  You will feel a deep sense of loss and betrayal.  A shocking shift in paradigm.  Anyone who hasn't experienced it will call you crazy.  Those who don't know the truth, or are covering it up, will call you a conspiracy nut."

In fact, that's just what a lot of these writers have been called.  Once a journalist has been tossed out of the inner circle, anything they write can be smeared as sour grapes or mere ranting.  The media has already branded them unreliable, so their charges are extremely unlikely to be taken seriously.

A similar thing happens to other progressive media critics.  It's not that the media isn't interested in media stories - see the blanket coverage of Tina Brown's foibles at Talk.  It's just that few are interested in critiques that challenge the very essence of journalists' romantic dreams of themselves as Robert Redford playing Bob Woodward in All the Presidents Men.  Right-wingers like Bias author Bernard Goldberg tend to get much more attention, perhaps because their insights don't threaten most journalists' cherished self-conceptions.

While most alternative press readers are familiar with Noam Chomsky's scrupulous documentation of the way government lies become the media's conventional wisdom and with Robert McChesney (who wrote Buzzsaw's conclusion) and Mark Crispin Millers' analysis of corporate consolidation, they are routinely written off by those policing the perimeters of acceptable debate.  They hardly ever appear in major newspapers or on network TV.  While not quibbling with their facts, most media people tar them as alarmists or unrealistic utopians.

Indeed, some of the writers in Buzzsaw say that, before their own experiences, they were among the scoffers.  Webb writes, "If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me ... I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests.  So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn't work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite?"

But, like most of the contributors to Into the Buzzsaw, he did his job too well and the powers that be hurled him onto the other side of the looking glass.  "And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been," he writes.  "The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job ...  The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."

The routine maginalizing of media critics is one reason Into the Buzzsaw is so important.  It might be possible to discredit one erstwhile insider, but to argue that more than a dozen veterans of organisations like CBS News, CNN, The AP, The BBC and The San Jose Mercury News are all crazy in exactly the same way would be to engage in conspiracy-mongering more far-fetched than anything these authors are accused of.  And while plenty of lefty writers have excoriated media monopolies, rarely has the precise way that corporate ownership and intimidation warp newsroom values been made quite so explicit.  The value of these testimonies is largely in their minute accumulation of detail (which occasionally makes for tedious reading but enhances credibility).  Borjesson is especially systematic, laying out every meeting, every conversation, every contradiction in government statements.

Some contributors aren't quite so convincing.  The book as a whole would have been stronger without April Oliver's self-serving piece about her involvement in CNN's Tailwind debacle and subsequent firing.  She doesn't bother to refute the charges made against her or defend the finer points of her work, which makes her essay seem like a self-serving screed.  But that's just one weak spot in an otherwise appallingly convincing book, a book that suggests that the truth about our media-military-industrial complex might go beyond even our paranoid imaginings.

Beyond the specifics of each story, Into the Buzzsaw is about how the elite sector of the media to bestows the imprimatur of truth on its own interpretations of the world.  In the current landscape, of course, these same outlets largely take it upon themselves to determine which books should be deemed serious.  It will be interesting to see if Into the Buzzsaw gets any play in the outlets it exposes.

Don't count on it.

Michelle Goldberg is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn

Source: 1 April 2002

Chilling Effect on Press Freedom

by Daniel Schorr

I have recently taken a week off in the Colorado Rockies, brooding about the trouble we journalists are in with the public.  (No, let me not exaggerate.  I only brooded during a small part of the time.)  On behalf of my profession, let me say it straight out: Journalists have erred.  We hope you will forgive us our press passes.

How have we erred?  Let me count the ways.

First, some of us by telling you things that were totally made up.  Like Stephen Glass with his imaginary anecdotes in The New Republic.  Or, Patricia Smith with her invented characters in The Boston Globe.  Or, going back a bit, Janet Cooke and her Pulitzer Prize-winning fantasy about a child heroin addict in The Washington Post.  Talented people who went wrong.

Second, some of us by telling you sensational things conceivably true, but not adequately documented.  That refers, of course, to the CNN allegations about nerve gas used against American deserters in Laos.  Heads rolled for that.  Peter Arnett, another Pulitzer Prize-winner, was reprimanded after his anguished defence that he was only reading a script someone else had written.  Financial settlements were made by CNN with interviewees who complained of having been misrepresented.  Well-meaning people caught up in a medium that blurs lines of reality.

Third, some of us by telling you true things, learned by questionable means.  This is the one that troubles me most.  I used to be a reporter and I can tell you that well-kept secrets are not generally dug out by conventional methods, but airing them may be an important public service.

ABC had its people lie on job applications and use hidden cameras to penetrate a Food Lion supermarket and expose tainted meat and unsanitary practices.  So unpopular are the media today that ABC got socked by a jury for trespass with a $5.5 million judgement (later reduced by the judge).

A Maine jury socked NBC with a $525,000 judgement for defamation for telling a true story about a trucker who falsified logs to drive more hours than legally allowed, thus a potential menace on the road.  But the trucker said he had been promised a more "positive" story.

In The Cincinnati Enquirer, reporter Michael Gallagher laid bare evidence that the Cincinnati-based Chiquita International had been involved in spraying dangerous pesticides on workers in Central America.  On the allegation that he had tapped into the company's voice mail, Mr. Gallagher was summarily fired and the Enquirer paid $10 million to Chiquita without even being sued.

What will happen to investigative journalism when juries are against you and you can't count on your bosses to back you up?  There is a phrase much used in First Amendment litigation: "chilling effect."  The press seems to be in for the big chill.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio

Source: Christian Science Monitor (Online Edition) Friday 24 July 1998

Australia to Implement Mandatory Internet Censorship

Australia will join China in implementing mandatory censoring of the internet under plans put forward by the Federal Government.  This revelation emerges as US tech giants Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and a coalition of human rights and other groups unveiled a code of conduct aimed at safeguarding online freedom of speech and privacy.  The government has declared it will not let internet users opt out of the proposed national internet filter.  The plan was first created as a way to combat child pornography and adult content, but could be extended to include controversial websites on euthanasia or anorexia.

Communications minister Stephen Conroy revealed the mandatory censorship to the Senate estimates committee as the "Global Network Initiative: bringing together leading companies, human rights organisations, academics and investors" which committed the technology firms to "protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users."  Mr Conroy said trials were yet to be carried out, but "we are talking about mandatory blocking, where possible, of illegal material."

The net nanny proposal was originally going to allow Australians who wanted uncensored access to the web the option of contacting their internet service provider to be excluded from the service.

Human Rights Watch has condemned internet censorship, and argued to the US Senate "there is a real danger of a Virtual Curtain dividing the internet, much as the Iron Curtain did during the Cold War, because some governments fear the potential of the internet, (and) want to control it."  Groups including the System Administrators Guild of Australia and Electronic Frontiers Australia [EFA] have attacked the proposal, saying it would unfairly restrict Australians' access to the web, slow internet speeds and raise the price of internet access.  EFA board member Colin Jacobs said it would have little effect on illegal internet content, including child pornography, as it would not cover file-sharing networks.  "If the Government would actually come out and say we're only targeting child pornography it would be a different debate," he said.

The technology companies' move, which follows criticism that the companies were assisting censorship of the internet in nations such as China, requires them to narrowly interpret government requests for information or censorship and to fight to minimise cooperation.  The initiative provides a systematic approach to "work together in resisting efforts by governments that seek to enlist companies in acts of censorship and surveillance that violate international standards," the participants said.  In a statement, Yahoo co-founder and chief executive Jerry Yang welcomed the new code of conduct.  "These principles provide a valuable roadmap for companies like Yahoo operating in markets where freedom of expression and privacy are unfairly restricted," he said.  "Yahoo was founded on the belief that promoting access to information can enrich people's lives, and the principles we unveil today reflect our determination that our actions match our values around the world."  Yahoo was thrust into the forefront of the online rights issue after the Californian company helped Chinese police identify cyber dissidents whose supposed crime was expressing their views online.  China exercises strict control over the internet, blocking sites linked to Chinese dissidents, the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement, the Tibetan government-in-exile and those with information on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.  A number of US companies, including Microsoft, Cisco, Google and Yahoo, have been hauled before the US Congress in recent years and accused of complicity in building the "Great Firewall of China".

The Australian Christian Lobby, however, has welcomed the proposals.  Managing director Jim Wallace said the measures were needed.  "The need to prevent access to illegal hard-core material and child pornography must be placed above the industry's desire for unfettered access," Mr Wallace said.

Source: October 29, 2008

See also:

bulletFreedom of the Press Is Never Safe - In ... Burma, censorship is total due to a state monopoly on access.  In addition, anyone who owns a computer must declare it to the government or face up to 15 years in prison...
bulletIt's for Your Own Good - for cartoons and articles relating to internet freedom.


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