Still one word at a time
All the editor that's fit to print
THE TIMES OF MY LIFE AND MY LIFE WITH THE TIMES By Max Frankel Random House 546 pp., $29.95
HIDDEN AGENDAS By John Pilger The New Press 412 pp., $18.95
ATTACKS ON THE PRESS IN 1998 The Committee to Protect Journalists 389 pp., $30
MONITORING THE NEWS: THE BRILLIANT LAUNCH AND SUDDEN COLLAPSE OF THE MONITOR CHANNEL By Susan Bridge M.E. Sharpe 272 pp., $36.95
Most Americans have never heard of Max Frankel, but for several years, he was one of the most powerful media figures in the United States: editor of The New York Times.
Frankel's autobiography, "The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times," is the latest and one of the more valuable in a series of memoirs by a generation of journalists whose work has shaped the American media. It provides insights both in American history and for those who would understand how reporters and editors approach their work.
The first chapters are a gripping and thought-provoking adventure story, detailing the Frankels' deportation from Germany and last-minute escape from Europe and the Holocaust.
Frankel broke in with the Times in the early 1950s, fresh from the Columbia University student newspaper, and although he came close, he never left except for military service. He comes from a different era in journalism: a time when correspondents had direct access to John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro.
Frankel documents his rise through the Washington bureau as one of "Scotty's boys" - protgs of the Times's famous bureau chief and columnist James Reston. His time there covered Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis; Johnson and the Vietnam War; and Richard Nixon's opening the door to China and Watergate.
During this time, the Times defied the government and published the Pentagon Papers, a classified government study detailing American involvement in Vietnam. The Times action was heroic; it fought the administration all the way to the Supreme Court. But Frankel gives short shrift to the other two newspapers - The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor - that also published part of the papers.
Frankel spent much of his career fighting the tendency of the Times to publish straight news stories with little analysis or interpretation to help the reader understand events in context. While he and Reston helped pioneer such writing at the Times, Frankel fails to observe that other newspapers were already publishing similar copy.
Indeed, one thing that comes through loudly in Frankel's writing is the Times's high opinion of itself. To be sure, it is a great and influential journal, employing an impressive team of talented journalists. But it's far from perfect and as often follows as sets the pace. The Times pretends to being the national newspaper. It's influence is certainly national, but it's really the newspaper of the Boston-to-Washington elite.
Frankel, who retired in 1994, takes credit for many of the healthy changes in the Times over the last two decades, including opening up Page 1 to nonpolitical stories. While taking a lot of flak, he made the paper far more reader friendly.
Journalists will enjoy Frankel's account of the Times's office politics; his rivalry with his predecessor as editor, Abe Rosenthal; and his depiction of Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger, the paper's publisher during much of Frankel's career. His frank discussion of the challenges in hiring minorities, covering the AIDS crisis and gay-rights movement, and writing about political sex scandals is a good starting point for consideration of those issues.
Along the way Frankel discusses his personal life as well, including the sad story of his first wife's depression and final illness, and the happier tale of his second marriage. His admission of mistakes along the way helps temper his sometimes self-congratulatory tone. The result is well worth reading.
*Lawrence J. Goodrich is a Monitor staff writer.
Real news may lie in slow news
By Paul Rosenberg
While little known in America, John Pilger is one of Britain's most honored (though decidedly unstuffy) journalists and documentary filmmakers. Like America's George Seldes or I.F. Stone, his main concerns are the stories that the mainstream press systematically ignores, downplays, or grotesquely misrepresents, and the relationship between the press and these stories.
His new book, "Hidden Agendas," he explains, "is about power, propaganda and censorship," and it spans the world from Burma, Indonesia, and Vietnam to South Africa, Australia, Britain, and America.
Pilger also introduces his book as devoted to "slow news" - the non-glitzy stories that come to the fore "on a Sunday or during the holiday period when the authorized sources of information are at rest."
But more than that, it's devoted to the point of view of those who suffer through - and make - slow news, people such as Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the millions of Burmese citizens who support her, or Bobby Muller, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, which works without fanfare to heal the wounds of that war, in Indochina and America, and keep us from forgetting its lessons.
People like these occasionally appear in the media spotlight, but only as transient curiosities. Pilger claims that media figures - owners, journalists, and politicians alike - largely ignore, misunderstand, and patronize them. He portrays these would-be giants, often through their own words, as morally shriveled figures devoid of credibility.
Thus, we encounter future British Prime Minister Tony Blair over a year before his election, "on a tour of Asia, during which he declared that the 'success' of the Singapore autocrat Lee Kuan Yew 'very much reflects my own philosophy.' "
Pilger explores the sinister implications of this statement as Blair took power, and the vast gulf between free markets with "Asian values" and the Asian values of democracy and social solidarity exemplified by Aung San Suu Kyi and her counterparts throughout the region.
Similarly, the story of Rupert Murdoch's empire-building, though centered on the monopolization and tabloidization of the British media, has a revealing East Asian moment. In 1993, Murdoch delivered a "speech lauding the 'communications revolution [as] an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes every-
China responded by banning satellite dishes, threatening his Hong Kong-based satellite service with ruin. Murdoch swiftly changed his tune, first by removing the BBC (which had aggressively covered Tiananmen Square) from his service, then developing a deepening partnership with the Chinese, broadcasting their propaganda, and creating a highly censored Internet interface with them.
Pilger pieces together a mosaic of such revealing moments, bits of slow news that add up to a picture diametrically opposed to the self-congratulatory portrait painted by politicians and privatizers flying under the banner of market democracy.
His sense of mission goes back further, as he recounts the struggles for freedom of the press in the 1500s, inextricably bound up in the struggles of the Protestant Reformation, which planted the seeds of modern democracy. This sense of historical and moral context sets "Hidden Agendas" apart. Alongside every spark of outrage is the oxygen of historical understanding.
*Paul Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Long Beach, Calif.
The risks of bringing the news to light
By Steve Weinberg
The phrase "killing the messenger" - adapted from Sophocles' centuries-old line in "Antigone" that "Nobody likes the man who brings bad news" - takes on new meaning in today's perilous world of international journalism.
The Committee to Protect Journalists keeps tabs on exactly who is killing, imprisoning, or otherwise harassing the messengers of news. Each year, the committee publishes an informative, but depressing book. The latest version, "Attacks on the Press in 1998," is probably the most informative - and most depressing - yet.
Journalists working in the United States are relatively safe. Occasionally, when US journalists travel outside the country, they are victimized. But the dangers they face on an occasional basis pale next to the daily perils experienced by journalists in nations such as Algeria (59 killed in the line of duty during the past 10 years) and Colombia (43 journalists killed in that same decade).
The book is filled with statistics that portray horror for the reporters and editors who try to ferret out the truth, as well as the broader citizenry that often has no other way to learn the truth except from these journalists.
The book consists of far more than just numbers, though. It contains profiles, case studies, and country reports that put faces on the numbers.
We meet Larisa Yudina, a newspaper editor killed for opposing the dictatorial government of Kalmykia in southern Russia. We meet Nosa Igiebor, a Nigerian editor arrested at home while security police held a gun to the temple of his three-year-old daughter. We meet Nizar Nayyouf, imprisoned for seven years in Syria without medical attention because he refuses to renounce his coverage of the state's human-rights violations.
Sections about suppression of news and attacks on journalists in Kosovo are especially timely given NATO's military presence there. Sylvia Poggioli, National Public Radio's European correspondent, sets her insightful preface to the book in Kosovo, where print and broadcast news organizations trying to operate independently from the government have been shuttered.
She laments that Western governments seem more interested in promoting consumer values around the world than in encouraging free media.
The book cannot be read in one sitting. The information is too dense, the cases too horrifying. Think of it as a reference book that brings only bad news, unless the determination of the beleaguered journalists can be counted as good news.
Here is how the reference book is organized:
*A chapter on the 24 journalists murdered in the line of duty during 1998.
*A chapter on the 12 journalists murdered, maybe in the line of duty, maybe not.
*A chapter on the 118 journalists imprisoned as of Dec. 31, 1998.
*A chapter on 10 heads of government who are the most virulent of press enemies, led by Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria.
*Accounts of five reporters and editors given special recognition during 1998 by the Committee to Protect Journalists for their courage in trying to inform the public.
*Continent-by-continent and country-by-country statistics concerning press suppression.
The amount of research poured into each country account is impressive.
(The Committee to Protect Journalists can be reached at 330 Seventh Ave., 12th floor, New York, NY 10001; firstname.lastname@example.org)
*Steve Weinberg edits the monthly magazine of Investigative Reporters & Editors, an international journalism organization based at the University of Missouri.
The Monitor venture into cable TV
By David T. Cook
In "Monitoring the News" Susan Bridge looks for meaning in the brief life and sudden demise of The Christian Science Monitor's foray into the world of cable television.
The Monitor Channel went live May 1, 1991, and offered viewers access to Monitor content 24 hours a day. It was discontinued less than a year later amid considerable controversy and a budget crunch at The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, which publishes this newspaper.
No one at the Monitor was unaffected by the broadcast venture, this reviewer included. The protagonists in the Monitor saga are friends of mine. I was a source for the Bridge book and played a role in the events it chronicles.
What's new about Bridge's book is its wealth of previously unpublished detail, coupled with the author's effort to analyze the facts dispassionately and place them in a wider broadcast-industry context.
Bridge's search for meaning in the dramatic twists and turns of the channel's short life focuses on the question: "Can high quality, global news and public information for television ... be produced and distributed as a viable for-profit business proposition in today's information marketplace?"
In response, the book offers a sobering view of the marketplace for broadcast news.
High-quality news is extremely expensive to produce. Only owners whose strong, non-economic motives push them toward the "first principles of journalism" will offer high-quality news, Bridge says. With a public service motivation, the Monitor fit this model, she says.
Bridge calculates that the Monitor Channel could have become profitable, although the cost of getting to break-even would have been much higher ($400 million to $500 million) and the time frame significantly longer (9 to 10 years) than originally estimated by the church.
Why did the channel fail?
The book argues that three outside factors contributed heavily to its collapse.
Bridge cites "the recession of 1988-1992, the severely constrained cable environment of the early 1990s, and the assault mounted on the Monitor's leadership from the fall of 1991 through the winter and spring of 1992 by The Boston Globe."
Bridge says that she is "not a partisan of any individual or group in this story," even though she originally was asked to write this book as an "as told to story" by the channel's former chief executive.
He later withdrew that proposal but gave Bridge access to extensive business records to help her write her own book.
On some issues, Bridge appears to side with those who led the effort to bring the Monitor's unselfish journalism to a nationwide television audience.
At key points in the story, her narrative is less sympathetic to those who led the effort to protect the newspaper from budget and staff cuts tied to the TV investments.
"Monitoring the News" would have been more balanced if Bridge had followed standard journalistic conventions and always provided a response from those whose motives or actions are called into question - including former Monitor editorial executives and the management of The Boston Globe.
Now that the channel is gone, "Monitoring the News" predicts a bleak financial future for this newspaper.
Without the audience and ad dollars the channel could have provided, Bridge asserts "the plain truth is that Monitor communications could not, cannot, and will not ever approach break even."
Ever is a long time. The newspaper industry remains strongly profitable and the church continues to make investments in the paper and its electronic edition aimed at reducing its need for an operating subsidy and increasing the depth and scope of its service to all mankind.
*David T. Cook is the Monitor's editor. He was previously editor of Monitor Broadcasting.