Columbia Journalism Review

How the Media Fail to Explain the Basic Science That Proves Climate Change

Two weeks ago, the New York Times published an article detailing the results of an investigation into Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, an aerospace engineer who’s published several papers questioning the link between human emissions of greenhouse gases and global warming. Soon, it was revealed, has received more than $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry over the course of the last decade.

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'Never Read The Comments': Why Some Sites Are Ditching Them Altogether

When millennial-targeted media company Mic ditched its comments section in mid-December, it was the latest in a string of similar announcements. The day before, The Week announced that it would forego comments in the new year, while the tech news site Re/code redesigned without comments in November. Slightly earlier, Pacific Standard and The Huffington Post both eliminated comments.

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Wikileaks Info Cherry-Picked by Corporate Media to Bolster Case Against Iran

A source provides details to the American government about the nefarious activities of a Middle Eastern country. That information ends up in scores of secret U.S. government documents. Subsequently, the information winds up on the front pages of major newspapers, and is heralded by war hawks in Washington as a casus belli.

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Non-Profit Investigative Journalism to the Rescue?

At a story meeting for California Watch, the nonprofit investigative news startup, employees sit around a conference table as Robert Salladay, the organization’s senior editor, begins to describe the findings of a six-month investigation by one of his state capital reporters. “It gives me chills,” Salladay tells the group. “Each paragraph could be its own story.” Robert Rosenthal, the founder of California Watch, peers over his glasses at an open laptop, then nods in agreement. “The reporting is so amazing,” he says.

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What Journalists Get Wrong About Gaza

Few stories are as complex and cumbersome as the continuing friction in the Middle East. Modern history mixes with ancient history; boundaries are drawn and redrawn. There is no shortage of opinion or misinformation. Accusations of media bias abound. Yesterday’s elections in Israel promise yet another dose of upheaval in the region, and additional uncertainty for Israel’s neighbors.

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How Our Gutless Media Helped Trigger the Credit Crisis

Last year, New York's state legislature, which has historically led the nation in passing pro-consumer credit legislation, approved a pair of bills aimed at protecting residents from questionable lending practices, the kind that have come back to haunt the economy. One of them would have put the brakes on the "universal default" provision, which lenders use to jack up the rates on credit cards if a cardholder misses a payment on a card issued by another lender. This practice has caused credit-card rates for some people to soar into the 20 or even the 30 percent range, far surpassing what once was considered criminal usury and helping to pile on debt that has contributed to mortgage foreclosures. But then-Governor Eliot Spitzer vetoed the bill, arguing that it would force lenders to increase interest rates or fees for all credit-card holders, even those with good credit records. Spitzer also claimed that the law wouldn't do any good anyway because federal law would preempt state law, and federal law allows banks to bypass state usury laws by setting up shop in states with lax regulation.

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Can the Media Deal With Michelle Obama?

She hates pantyhose! She loves her girls! She shops at Target … and pronounces it Tar-get, not Tar-jay! She loved Sex and the City! She eats bacon for breakfast (no halal food here, folks)! She's not above talking with her mouth full … of granola!

As they've been reporting this week in the mainstream (read: non-US Weekly) media, the details of Michelle Obama's famed "reintroduction tour" (see Liz's breakdown of those details here) have often been framed as Lofty Philosophical Questions About the Role of the Presidential Spouse: In this instance, to what extent is it fair to analyze the statements, beliefs and overall character of that spouse? To what extent is -- and should -- a Life Partner be a Political Partner?

On Wednesday night the Huffington Post ran a homepage-published story about Obama's "reintroduction," the story's banner headline begging the Spousal Role question. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley, through the lens of Obama's and Cindy McCain's appearances on The View, gave us a breakdown of The Press Treatment of the Campaign-Trail Spouse Through History. We got blogged analysis of that tour here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. On the cable news channels last night and this morning, we got the regurgitations of Michelle-O's appearance on The View, with segment guests -- political strategists, historians, etc. -- arguing about whether and how political spouses should exercise their membership in the Heard Wives Club.

The role of the political spouse is a fair subject of debate, to be sure, one that deserves discussion and dissection in the media. And those media, in this case, deserve some credit for couching a story whose main reportorial details involve pantyhose and cured pork products in terms of Profound Political Discourse. Conversations can always be elevated. So, you know, kudos. But loftiness can't exist on its own (pesky gravity!): News stories can truly be elevated only when the press provides enough substance to bolster them. And in this case, generally, it did not.

The "philosophical" questions about the Role of the Candidate's Counterpart have been grounded, instead, in the triviality of the answers offered to them: We were promised Rhetorical Loft; we got instead microscopic analyses of fist-bumping and cat-fighting. We got a lot about Cindy McCain's latest response to Michelle Obama's months-old "for the first time in my adult life, I'm proud of my country" comment (the peg being that said comment was mentioned during the View appearance); we got the campaigns' Official Responses to the she-said/she-said back-and-forth, with little further commentary. We got, in short, the same regurgitated, reiterated squabbles -- spiced with assorted inanity (Pantyhose? Really?) -- that we've come to expect, though not accept, in our campaign coverage.

None of which is terribly surprising. The "reintroduction tour" coverage was a matter of M.O. in every sense. But that's particularly unfortunate, in this case, because the question in the discussion we were promised is a good one: What is the role of the presidential spouse these days, both on the campaign trail and in the White House? Will our first ladies continue to populate the political ghetto of "women's causes" -- literacy (Laura Bush), children's issues (Barbara Bush), mental health (Betty Ford) -- or will they, as a rule rather than an exception, begin to take a more active role in their husbands' administrations, a la Eleanor Roosevelt or Edith Wilson or Hillary Clinton?

Here's the Times' Stanley, assessing Obama's view appearance this morning:

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Wall Street Journal on Brink of Becoming Journalistic Disaster

The abrupt resignation of Marcus Brauchli as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal is surprising even to those of us who saw News Corp.'s takeover of the Journal's parent as a journalistic disaster in the making.

The best account, as Ryan Chittum points out in our Opening Bell, is by Richard Perez-Pena in today's New York Times.


There will be some who say the resignation of an editor doesn't matter or that it is a good thing since we live in the best of all possible worlds. In fact, Brauchli's resignation is a billboard-sized sign that the world's leading financial publication is abandoning the qualities that made it great in the first place.

If Murdoch's bid for Dow Jones & Co. was the beginning of the end of the Journal as we knew it, as I wrote when the bid was unveiled a year ago, Brauchli's exit is the end of the beginning of the end.

It is true that, for the last few months, and even before Rupert Murdoch's company closed on the deal in December, the Journal had zigged and zagged but ultimately lurched toward changes that I didn't see as being particularly good:

-a tilt toward general news, especially politics, which sounds good but pulls resources away from the Journal's core business and economics coverage and into areas well-covered elsewhere;


-an attempt to make the Journal newsier, which also sounds good, but in fact tends to elevate more run-of-the-mill business stories to prominence, leaving less time and resources for fully developed features and investigations that are off the news.


-an abandonment of anecdotal ledes on page one, which seems like inside baseball but in fact is like taking a chisel from a carpenter's toolbox, leaving only the hammer and power drill.



Again, none of those changes are good from a journalism point of view because they all tend to tilt the Journal toward more commodity-type offerings -- things you can get anywhere.

After all, any business outlet can report that Texas Instruments shares fell, or that Royal Bank of Scotland is looking for capital.

On the other hand, one could at least see potential value in any or all of the changes -- I'm mean, long-winded anecdotal ledes on newspaper stories had become the subject of parody for a reason. Sometimes you had to turn page A17 just to find out that the guy you had just spent six paragraphs getting to know was dead -- hit by a train at a crossing where the signals were broken because federal railway regulators had curtailed inspections because of budget cuts needed to fund an alternative-energy boondoggle involving some prominent campaign contributor. I mean, I understand the problem.

And news is good. I like news, even political news.

And no one should argue that the Journal didn't need a change. Murdoch had shrewdly caught the Journal at a low ebb, journalistically as well as financially. The bid came just after Paul Steiger, the managing editor since 1991, had announced that Brauchli would be his successor and just before Brauchli had actually taken over.

I wrote at the time that under Steiger, and his deputy, Dan Hertzberg, both former bosses of mine, the Journal's editorial focus had narrowed, the page-one editor's job had been downgraded, and the paper had grown more bureaucratic. The culture was comically Byzantine; dissent was virtually nonexistent; page one had fallen sharply, in my view, from heights achieved under James B. Stewart and John Brecher.

(Stewart now teaches here, writes a column for SmartMoney, and writes great nonfiction. Brecher and his wife, Dorothy Gaiter, write a popular wine column for the Journal.)

And so over the past few months, it was hard to argue against change, and I didn't particularly want to. It was also difficult to know which changes were imposed by Murdoch and the publisher he appointed, Robert Thomson, and which were initiatives by Brauchli or his page-one editor, Mike Williams.


Brauchli, a former Beijing bureau chief and Journal staffer for twenty-four years, was a popular choice to succeed Steiger. His appointment alone raised morale. Some staffers had reported a new energy coursing through the paper, even as they bridled at some of the editing on page one.

I certainly didn't like some of it. I thought the writing lately has been flat as a pancake, especially the ledes, the stories' beginnings, even on stories that turned out to be good.

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The Future of Medicare Is the Future of Health Care

Of the millions of words written and spoken about U.S. health care, only a tiny percentage have been about Medicare. So far, stump speeches and media coverage boil down, on the Democratic side, to whose health proposal covers more people, and, for GOP candidates, who will not embrace that American bugaboo, "socialized medicine." Medicare, which covers more than forty million seniors and people with disabilities, seems to be off limits, even though there's plenty to talk about. The scant coverage of Medicare that does exist is cryptic, code-like, and assumes that the public knows the ins and outs of one of the government's most complicated programs.


This is unfortunate because the future of Medicare may well tell us what kind of health care all of America will eventually have. Will we conquer budget challenges and find a way to continue Medicare as a successful social insurance program? Or will we privatize the program to mirror the rest of the U.S. health insurance system, with its holes and shortcomings?


A New York Times CBS News poll in December found that less than one percent of respondents thought Medicare and Medicaid were the most important problems facing the country, a stat which raises a chicken and egg question. Do candidates think that people don't care about Medicare, justifying their silence, or do voters not yet care because the media (and the candidates) aren't telling them what's at stake?

Back in August, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Iowa and briefly discussed Medicare, which she said faced significant financial challenges driven by the spiraling cost of health care. True enough. She told the gathering that the current president had not called for a national commitment to save Social Security and Medicare and that it was time "we talked about and confronted a lot of these issues." She described them as "invisible." True again. But neither Clinton, the other candidates, nor the media have done much to make them visible.

Mike Huckabee's words are puzzling. Right before Christmas, Huckabee talked to an Iowa woman who is dying from a progressive lung disease. When she asked him what he would do to change the national health care system, he responded that change must start with federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid. "If we don't set the model, then the rest of the industry doesn't move that way." But if Huckabee explained what model he had in mind, The Associated Press didn't tell us.

On the trail, Huckabee notes that Medicare obligations, if not "fixed," will lead to financial ruin, and quips, "Wait till all these aging hippies find out they'll get free drugs for the rest of their lives." Does he mean free LSD or free Lipitor? Medicare provides neither, but aging hippies might indeed want to know what kind of program Medicare will be five years from now -- one where everyone is entitled to a standard set of benefits or one where people must fish in the pond controlled by private insurance companies. The Medicare drug benefits, now sold by commerical insurers, moved in the latter direction.

Fred Thompson said he would cut Medicare for wealthy people like Warren Buffet. Does he really mean billionaires, or merely those with incomes higher than $80,000? (Right now single people with incomes greater than that pay higher premiums -- another step in the direction of privatization.) Does Thompson aim to destroy the universality of Medicare, which most experts believe contributes to the program's popularity and success? A Miami Herald story into this for readers, many of whom are already on Medicare and would presumbly want to know if they will lose benefits under a Thompson plan.

John Edwards started to talk about how the drug companies wrote the Medicare prescription drug law. "Why do we have that mess of a Medicare prescription drug law? The thing was written by drug company lobbyists. I was there..." A New York Times story cut off the rest of his remarks so we don't know, if he said anything, about how he would fight drug company opposition to negotiating prices with Medicare, a position he supports.

The media and the candidates are ignoring other serious issues:

Overpayments to insurance companies selling private-fee-for-service plans to Medicare beneficiaries. Seniors can choose one of these plans instead of traditional Medicare benefits. But independent experts like the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission say the government pays these insurers 19 percent more than it costs to provide the same benefits under traditional Medicare. Medicare's own actuaries predict that overpayments hasten the depletion of the system's trust funds, resulting in benefit cuts unless new revenues flow in. When President Bush vowed to veto any legislation that cut the excess payments, Congress didn't push for cuts during its end-of-the-year session. The media missed a golden opportunity to press the candidates. For the record: Both Obama and Clinton supported cutting the overpayments, important positions that have gotten no attention or traction so far.

How Medicare will cope with the rising cost of health care, and who will pay those costs. Medicare like other segments of the health care system has been unable to control the mounting costs of new technology and treatments. To continue benefits, tax increases might be necessary. Yet the snippets of Medicare policy we have heard come mostly from Republicans promoting market solutions -- like shifting future costs to beneficiaries -- instead of revenue solutions that will retain Medicare's fundamental structure. Clinton said almost a year ago that the president's attempt to make higher-income beneficiaries pay surcharges for their Medicare drug benefits was "exactly the wrong approach." But as the year unfolded, squabbles over whose health care plan forced more people to buy insurance drowned out this crucial policy difference.

A recent retirement column posted on businessweek.com/investing questioned the silence about Medicare and other retirement issues. The writer, Ellen Hoffman, scanned position papers, statements, and tried, sometimes without success, to get more information from campaign staffs. It's a hopeful sign that she tried. Maybe other reporters will start delving in to the effects of government overpayments and rising health care costs on Medicare, and whether Medicare will continue to cover all of the elderly. Here's a case where the press needs to lead rather than wait for the spinmeisters to decide what gets covered.

The Limits of Newsprint

When I left a reporting job at The Washington Post several years ago, I lost an institution I loved -- not to mention free LexisNexis and an affiliation that pretty much guaranteed that my phone calls were returned right away. But I gained the opportunity to immerse myself in a project that I'm sure could never have been created for the newspaper.

From the time I started writing about education for the Post in 1998 until I quit in 2004, I was given a lot of freedom to delve into issues I thought important, and a lot of inches, too. In addition to my daily duties covering school systems, I wrote 3,000-word magazine pieces; I wrote A1 trend stories; I wrote a four-part series about life in middle school, a topic I pursued further in book form, on leave from the Post. But neither I nor even the paper's greatest stars would ever have been able to write for the Post what I thought the country really needed at the time: an honest, sweeping, in-depth criticism of how elementary education has changed in the era of standardization and testing.

The simplest reason that project wouldn't have happened at the Post is, ironically, the paper's influence. In 2004, I approached two major school systems with my idea for Tested, and both quickly agreed to participate. Tina McKnight, the principal of Tyler Heights Elementary in Annapolis, Maryland, the school I ultimately chose, later told me she never would have done so if my work was intended for the Post instead of a book. The Tyler Heights Elementary School teachers said the same thing: We trusted you, but still ...

Still what? Well, there's the time factor. Books are usually published years after first contact with the people you're writing about, which somehow eases the nerves. Then there's the intimidation factor of a name like The Washington Post. People have had more opportunities to feel crossed by a paper rather than by a book. They assume, as one teacher told me, that newspaper reporters have hidden agendas. Books, it seems, have a better reputation than papers, not that I think it's deserved: nobler, more responsible, more exciting, more forever.

"And there's the chance of your friends seeing it," Alia Johnson, one of the teachers I write about, told me. "With a book, you have to know about it, go into a bookstore and look for it, buy it. Everyone reads the newspaper. It's more in your face."

Anyone who has done immersion journalism, for a paper, book, or magazine, knows that when your subjects are more relaxed, they are less likely to put on a show. To me, Tina McKnight expressed skepticism and anxiety -- about the superintendent's promise to close the achievement gap in less than two years, the scripted curriculum the county handed down, the subjects the students didn't get much of -- and was honest about her school's warts. It's not the same approach she would have taken with a reporter who was going to put this stuff in the newspaper she knows her bosses read every day. Her bosses will read Tested, too, it's certain. But it was easier for her to forget that.

In the long run, I think it would behoove educators to be utterly honest about the difficulties they face: "Here's our toughest group of third graders. As you see, they come to us with so few social skills that just getting them to sit and listen is a time-consuming chore every day, a chore that cuts far into the time we have to teach. That, combined with the poor skills they arrive with, means that these kids miss out on a lot." But principals and elementary school teachers, not a rebellious bunch by nature -- middle managers and line workers of a big bureaucracy, after all -- can't afford to be that forthcoming with reporters they barely know. That's especially true with a prominent newspaper like The Washington Post, where a glowing mention can buoy a school community for months.

And so in articles in the Post, as well as the Baltimore Sun and the Annapolis Capital, Tyler Heights Elementary is portrayed simply as a model of school reform done right, headed by a cheerleading, effortlessly optimistic principal. The stories don't delve into the heavy costs of the success; they rely heavily on interviews with the principal, and why would she have wanted to discuss the messy stuff?

Even if the school had given a newspaper access for a year, the reporter still would lack many of the advantages that a book author enjoys.

You get more space. In Tested, I wanted to explain how outside influences, from federal education policy to county directives to family life, affected the school days of children and teachers and transformed the ecology of a school. There are a few newspapers that devote massive resources and space to education projects, but more do not. Even a huge newspaper project is a fraction of the length of a typical narrative nonfiction book, limiting the scope of an effort like this.

Freed from the strictures of space, I was able to focus on issues I felt were crucial to understanding the inner workings of a school, which are the types of topics a newspaper editor is likely to consider inside baseball and the first things that get cut from an overlong newspaper article. Too often, education is covered as a consumer issue, with stories geared only to what editors think readers want to know about how their own children spend their time. Kids losing recess because of test prep and art: yes! Teachers told they need to pass a test or else their students will receive letters that they're not qualified: meh. A "news you can use" approach to stories is fine in many cases, but not when it crowds out the comprehension that can come from seemingly wonky stuff. Teachers' battles with bureaucracy, after all, are news a reader can use when the reader wants to understand the climate of schools and why teachers are losing enthusiasm for their profession. A book allows you to show consultant visits, curriculum decision-making, meetings where teachers discuss the mundane details of each special-education student or struggling reader or chronic misbehaver. These situations may be administrative in origin, but the impact on real lives is compelling -- if you get to really know the characters involved.

You get more time. A paper like the Post spends a lot of resources on education, with at least 10 reporters devoted to the topic. But those reporters almost all cover local school systems, and when they do tackle projects, they usually must tend simultaneously to their regular beats. For a project of the depth and breadth I was setting out on, the Post would have had to allow me a massive, impractical amount of time away from my daily beat. Two years elapsed from my first contact with the Tyler Heights principal to the completion of the editing process, including 10 months when I spent nearly every school day at Tyler Heights and the remainder of the afternoon and evening at home transcribing notes, reading, and interviewing.

Why so much time? Powerful newspaper pieces, after all, are composed in months, or weeks, or days, or hours. But for what I wanted to accomplish, I needed to paint pictures that could only be created through the kind of direct, rote observation that allowed every tiny piece to be put into perspective, and I needed to see enough to be convinced of my own judgments. To know anything, I have always thought, I must see everything -- the same approach I took when I spent the year with five children for my first book, which explored the lives of middle schoolers. I had to watch kindergartners take a certain literacy test 30 times before I felt comfortable drawing conclusions about the assessment and before picking one scene that both represented the students' experiences and illustrated my concerns. I sat through dozens of practice sessions for the state exam the students would face in March; I attended nearly every staff meeting; I ate lunch with children or teachers every day -- in all, the kind of attention that can only be paid when you are truly focusing on nothing else. (My husband can attest to that.)

You can express your opinion, flat-out. It's better to show than to tell, yes, but sometimes the strongest thing you can do is both. Instead of using the reporting trick of finding someone to give a quote that expresses what the writer really wants to say, the book author gets to just say it. So I state that it is inane to make teachers write the day's objectives on the board, especially in the jargon that is encouraged; that educators should not blame No Child Left Behind for their own stupid policy decisions; that it is educationally unsound to expect every child in a grade to reach the same level of achievement in the same amount of time; that the basic readers assigned to kindergartners make Dick and Jane look plot-thick; that it is bad science to pay teachers based on their children's test scores; that Tyler Heights students should learn more facts; that the math curriculum seemed to have been designed by someone with attention deficit disorder; that it is crazy that the same people who call the principal a hero for getting test scores up don't seem to want her input on developing the curriculum.

And so on.

You benefit from a loosening of attribution. My work is by all means informed by data and the research of experts, but I don't have to be as explicit about showing it, or I can tuck it away in footnotes. You can also get away with not attributing to anyone, basing your authority instead on your own accumulated expertise and a decade of immersion. You are allowed to say, "It's hard to get parents to school in a poor community," rather than, "Experts say it's hard to get parents to school in a poor community." With myself as the expert, I get to make some broad statements: that parents at Back to School night in low-income schools often speak mainly with each other, while at middle-class schools, parents interact with teachers; that those things most middle-class parents do as a rule to make sure their children learn often went neglected at Tyler Heights; that disadvantaged children need more than anyone to learn problem-solving and interpretation skills in their classrooms but are most often deprived of such instruction (while receiving the most test prep).

I make my own analyses, of how limited the Maryland state test is, of what I call the "imagination gap" between well-off students and poor ones and how that impacts their ability to learn; of how middle-class students have an exposure to the world that fuels motivation. I don't know if there is a sociologist somewhere who explains that more convincingly and more scientifically than I do, but I'm glad I got to say it without having to find him.

Nearly every scene I paint in the book I witnessed myself, and with those I didn't, I filled in the gaps by speaking to others involved, as anyone at a newspaper would. But in general, I get to be my own arbiter about whom to trust, about distinguishing gossip from reality. This is a weighty burden, but it becomes manageable when you get to know people well over a year. I did not ask Autumn's aunt if the girl was enrolled in school after she had been pulled out of Tyler Heights; I was not there when Reggie's aunt told the principal that his father accused him of "acting white" when he started improving in school; I did not confirm with the police that one mother instructed her youngsters how to steal diapers from Rite Aid; and I didn't actually see Cairo choke his pre-K classmate. These are all mentioned in Tested, and I had no qualms about passing them on, because I was around when staff members discussed how to handle those events, and I calculated that they had no reason to make them up. Newspaper editors would be more cautious about passing on secondhand information, which makes sense. They have hundreds of reporters whose judgments they rely on. I have only myself.

You can use first person. The writer doesn't have to rejigger or omit an anecdote just because he (and not "a reporter") was involved in it. Some things are too awkward to put into third person but worth mentioning, like the warnings the black children gave me about visiting their housing project, or which of my long-ago teachers (some bad, some great) would have had trouble making it in today's standardized classrooms. When I speak around the country about my first book, I am always asked why I chose the school I did. In Tested, I decided to explain directly why I wrote about Tyler Heights, because people always wanted to know. Newspapers sometimes include sidebars with this kind of explanation, but not always.

You don't have to use the typical journalistic shortcuts in your field. When writing in the popular media about testing, a certain trope applies, in which phrases like "improving student learning," "raising achievement," and "closing the gap" are all merely synonyms for scores on state standardized tests. If I were still at the Post, I suspect that refusing to use those phrases as synonyms for test scores and introducing caveats to the numbers might have been seen as some sort of political statement on my part. In Tested, I avoid phrases like "test scores rose" when the truth is "the percentage of children who passed the test rose, though because the test changes every year, you can't really draw a strong comparison." In a book, I can choose to say "test scores rose" only when I mean test scores rose, and I can show how "gaps" and "achievement" have many more meanings than can be expressed numerically.

You don't have to give equal (or any) time to arguments you think are baseless. Newspaper journalists don't have that luxury, which is why articles about global warming usually include quotes from the rare scientist who doesn't believe it exists.

You can change names. Both of the schools that allowed me to write my books conditioned permission on changing children's names -- a practice not allowed at the Post and many other papers yet often encouraged by the lawyers at publishing houses. Newspapers want to be considered the ultimate record of fact, and they gain more credibility as institutions by being able to insist that no matter what section, no matter what reporter, we have made nothing up. I always liked this about the Post. I would rather not change names. But the book reader and I both know there are truths that can be had only at this cost, and I'm glad I have the freedom to pay it. I stand only for myself, and people can judge my credibility as they wish; newspapers, collective endeavors after all, must be more careful.

You can risk offending people. The third graders featured in Tested were a particularly nasty bunch. Quite often they didn't seem to want to learn, and they carried a lot of anger with them from home; it was hard to imagine children so consistently mean to each other holding a job one day, no matter how well they did on their math tests. So I said that. I also explained, in ways I knew never would be allowed into the Post, where their parents fell short. When I reported long ago for the Post about the growing behavior problems of elementary schoolchildren, everyone I interviewed, from the teachers to the administrators to the social scientists, implicated parents in some way, a point of view I passed along in the story. My editors let me know that I was being "too hard on parents," and that part of the story was excised considerably.

You can be sarcastic. "You're not going to be a scientist if you can't read," I quote a superintendent as saying, in defense of a pared-down curriculum. Well, I respond, you can't be a scientist if you never learn science either; you can't be a lawyer if you don't learn critical-thinking skills; you can't be a politician if you never get to speak in front of a group. When the principal went to a conference and heard about one way to build enthusiasm among her staff, I wrote, "I couldn't wait to see the look on Miss Johnson's face when she would be told to 'clap fireworks' when a colleague presented a good idea." About the Bush administration's inclination to call anyone who criticizes No Child Left Behind a racist, I wrote, "One suspects that if you suggested 90 percent might be a more reasonable proficiency goal than one hundred, you'd be asked why you hate 10 percent of America's children."

At a newspaper I probably would have had the benefit of an editor who would know a lot about education issues, who would talk deeply with me about content and language, who would challenge me in ways that surely would have improved my thinking. I would have had hundreds of thousands of potential readers, the barrier to entry being thirty-five cents and not twenty-five dollars. But I would have had to omit all those snarky cracks, which I imagine would have made it a far less engaging read, and far less fun to write.

I suppose newspapers could permit reporters to engage in more sarcasm, be looser with the rules, take up more space. Then fewer reporters would feel the need to leave, temporarily or permanently, to write books. I don't think that's the right way to go, though. The standards that would have made it impossible to write Tested at the Post, the dignity that comes with the territory, are a huge reason journalists are proud to work there, and why they can be trusted in the looser world of book publishing. They don't leave that discipline behind in the newsroom. Carried away, blended with some freedom, it can make for some pretty good books.

What Kind of News Do People Really Want?

It's almost fifty pages long, but well worth the read: a recent study by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press synthesizes 165 separate national surveys and finds that American news preferences have remained "surprisingly static" over the last twenty years. Tucked behind this central conclusion, however, is a suite of more intriguing observations about readership and audience habits.

Overall, the study found the percentage of people who follow the news "very closely" dropped from thirty percent during the 1980s to twenty-three percent during 1990s -- but then jumped back to thirty percent during the twenty-first century. That swing has less to do with changes in information technology (from broadcast, to cable, to online) than with changes in world events -- or "reality" as study author Michael J. Robinson described it. The dip in public attention during the last decade of the twentieth century was likely the result of relative peace and economic prosperity in the United States, he wrote: "The '80s were more 'interesting'; the '90s, less so; the '00s have been most interesting so far."

The study broke down news in nineteen separate categories and then six "super categories." Not surprisingly, war and terrorism have consistently ranked at the top of the stack since 1986, where the study begins. So have bad weather, and natural or manmade disaster stories, although the latter stand out for having witnessed a precipitous drop in public interest, one of the rare instances of significant change. In contrast, money news is the only category that has grown notably more popular with time. Crime, health, and politics have consistently ranked as mid-level interest categories. Science and technology, foreign news that is not directly related to the U.S., and tabloid and entertainment news have consistently ranked lowest in the public eye.

It is disheartening that only about a quarter of the American public, on average, finds news compelling on a daily basis. But contrary to popular belief, "there is scant evidence that during the last century -- despite major changes in the news 'menu' -- the American audience has moved toward a diet of softer news. News tastes have become neither less nor more serious since the 1980s," Robinson concluded. As this singular observation indicates, the study, overall, is a mixed bag of the reassuring and the dismaying. Reading it leaves an impression not unlike the feeling of having broken even in a game of high-stakes poker -- mostly frustrated, but a little relieved.

Given the mostly changeless nature of public news interests over time, some of the more interesting aspects of Robison's work are his observations about the stories people have latched onto during the first half of this year. He compares Pew's "News Interest Index" with the "News Coverage Index" from Journalism.org to determine where the former lagged, equaled, or surpassed the latter.

Stories that elicited significant amounts of coverage, but little public interest, included Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the firing of eight federal prosecutors, the trial and sentencing of White House aide Scooter Libby, and the criminal charges against astronaut Lisa Nowak. Stories that inspired equally large amounts of coverage and interest included the war in Iraq, the boys kidnapped in Missouri, and search and rescue of the hikers on Mt. Hood. Regarding Iraq, it is interesting to note that the execution of Saddam Hussein provoked equally low levels of coverage and interest. Finally, stories that aroused much more interest than coverage included global warming and inadequate conditions for soldiers and marines at Walter Reed Medical Center.


Another finding of particular importance for the immediate future is that, "Even though the recent presidential campaign has attracted higher than normal interest for this stage in the election cycle, audience interest has lagged behind the level of media coverage." This may be disappointing, but there is some solace (especially given the recent gossip surrounding Idaho Sen. Larry Craig) to be found in another of the report's conclusions: that people's appetite for political scandal is even lower. "Public interest in 'watchdoggery' seems unpredictable, if not bizarre," Robinson concludes.

Nonetheless, there are certain ways to predict what the public will be interested in, he noted, regardless of whether the topic is politics, foreign affairs, disasters, science or anything else. "Polarizing social issues involving family, sexuality, patriotism and God engender the highest levels of attention," Robison wrote. In addition, proximity to home can make a big difference, as can human interest. When Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas in 1987, one year after the Chernobyl disaster, sixty-nine percent of America paid rapt attention to her rescue. "That reading put Baby Jessica in eighth place among all 1,300 stories" [the Pew studied examined], Robison wrote. "Chernobyl, in contrast, failed to rank in the top 100 stories."

Thankfully, celebrity scandal ranks lowest among all news preferences. Writing for The Nation, Eric Alterman argues that the lack of interest in this subject is the study's "most shocking" conclusion. The finding is especially surprising given the "major changes in the news 'menu,'" that Robison describes, where "substantial coverage" devoted to stories such as Paris Hilton's incarceration and Anna Nicole Smith's death.

Yet what is truly fascinating is the explanation for this contradiction between interest and coverage: "Even the smallest shifts in ratings can cause news organizations to alter substantially their news focus," Robinson writes, and often toward "a lower common denominator." But these alterations, marked by "saturation" coverage, are often temporary and aimed at capturing the niche rather than the national audience. This harkens back to the earlier, chicken-and-egg discussion of where interest lags behind coverage, and where it exceeds coverage. "That the national news audience does not shift its news diet nearly so quickly as news organizations shift their news menu" is one of the most important take-away messages for journalists in Robinson's study.

Robinson implies that on a national scale changes in coverage tend to mold public interest rather than vice versa. If so, journalists must be especially cognizant of their influence on not only opinions about the news, but also on what is considered newsworthy to begin with. Responsible editors and reporters like to think they do not pander to people's basest interests, but rather guide and educate them. So perhaps the more pressing question is not, how have preferences changed, but rather to what degree and how quickly does content influence those preferences? Does a diet of more junk food create an appetite for more junk? Does a healthy diet create the reverse?

And if an outlet such as CNN chooses to even temporarily woo a niche audience for the sake of ratings -- by chasing the Anna Nicole Smith story, for example -- what is sacrificed with regard to the national audience? Hopefully, reports such as the Robinson's study will help guide journalists as they try to find answers.

Female War Reporters Hide Sexual Abuse To Continue Getting Assignments

The photographer was a seasoned operator in South Asia. So when she set forth on an assignment in India, she knew how to guard against gropers: dress modestly in jeans secured with a thick belt and take along a male companion. All those preparations failed, however, when an unruly crowd surged and swept away her colleague. She was pushed into a ditch, where several men set upon her, tearing at her clothes and baying for sex. They ripped the buttons off her shirt and set to work on her trousers.

"My first thought was my cameras," recalls the photographer, who asked to remain anonymous. "Then it was, 'Oh my God, I'm going to be raped.' " With her faced pressed into the soil, she couldn't shout for help, and no one would have heard her anyway above the mob's taunts. Suddenly a Good Samaritan in the crowd pulled the photographer by the camera straps several yards to the feet of some policemen who had been watching the scene without intervening. They sneered at her exposed chest but escorted her to safety.
Alone in her hotel room that night, the photographer recalls, she cried, thinking, "What a bloody way to make a living." She didn't inform her editors, however. "I put myself out there equal to the boys. I didn't want to be seen in any way as weaker."

Women have risen to the top of war and foreign reportage. They run bureaus in dodgy places and do jobs that are just as dangerous as those that men do. But there is one area where they differ from the boys -- sexual harassment and rape. Female reporters are targets in lawless places where guns are common and punishment rare. Yet the compulsion to be part of the macho club is so fierce that women often don't tell their bosses. Groping hands and lewd come-ons are stoically accepted as part of the job, especially in places where Western women are viewed as promiscuous. War zones in particular seem to invite unwanted advances, and sometimes the creeps can be the drivers, guards, and even the sources that one depends on to do the job. Often they are drunk. But female journalists tend to grit their teeth and keep on working, unless it gets worse.

Because of the secrecy around sexual assaults, it's hard to judge their frequency. Yet I know of a dozen such assaults, including one suffered by a man. Eight of the cases involve forced intercourse, mostly in combat zones. The perpetrators included hotel employees, support staff, colleagues and the very people who are paid to guarantee safety -- policemen and security guards. None of the victims want to be named. For many women, going public can cause further distress. In the words of an American correspondent who awoke in her Baghdad compound to find her security guard's head in her lap, "I don't want it out there, for people to look at me and think, 'Hmmm. This guy did that to her, yuck.' I don't want to be viewed in my worst vulnerability."

The only attempt to quantify this problem has been a slim survey of female war reporters published two years ago by the International News Safety Institute, based in Brussels. Of the 29 respondents who took part, more than half reported sexual harassment on the job. Two said they had experienced sexual abuse. But even when the abuse is rape, few correspondents tell anyone, even friends. The shame runs so deep, and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong that no one wants intimate violations to resound in a newsroom.

Rodney Pinder, the director of the institute, was struck by how some senior newswomen he approached after the 2005 survey were reluctant to take a stand on rape. "The feedback I got was mainly that women didn't want to be seen as 'special' cases for fear that (a) it affected gender equality and (b) it hindered them getting assignments," he says.

Caroline Neil, who has done safety training with major networks over the past decade, agrees. "The subject has been swept under the carpet. It's something people don't like to talk about."

In the cases that I know of, the journalists did nothing to provoke the attacks; they behaved with utmost propriety, except perhaps for one bikini-clad woman who was raped by a hotel employee while sunbathing on the roof in a conservative Middle Eastern country. The correspondent who was molested by her Iraqi security guard is still puzzling over the fact that he brazenly crept into her room while colleagues slept nearby. "You do everything right, and then something like this happens," she says. "I never wore tight T-shirts or outrageous clothes. But he knew I didn't have a tribe that would go after him."

That guard lost his job, but such punishment is rare. A more typical case is of an award-winning British correspondent who was raped by her translator in Africa. Reporting him to a police force known for committing atrocities seemed like a futile exercise.

Like most foreign correspondents who were assaulted, those women were targets of opportunity. The predators took advantage because they could. Local journalists face the added risk of politically motivated attacks. The Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, cites rape threats against female reporters in Egypt who were seen as government critics. Rebels raped someone I worked with in Angola for her perceived sympathy for the ruling party. In one notorious case in Colombia in 2000, the reporter Jineth Bedoya Lima was kidnapped and gang-raped in what she took as reprisal for her newspaper's suggestion that a paramilitary group ordered some executions. She is the only colleague I know of who has gone on the record about her rape.

The general reluctance to call attention to the problem creates a vicious cycle whereby editors, who are still typically men, are unaware of the dangers because women don't bring them up. Survivors of attacks often suffer in lonely silence, robbed of the usual camaraderie that occurs when people are shot or kidnapped. It was an open secret in our Moscow press corps in the 1990s that a young freelancer had been gang-raped by policemen. But given the sexual nature of her injury, no one but the woman's intimates dared extend sympathies.

Even close calls frequently go unmentioned. In my own case, I never reported to my foreign editor a narrow escape at an airport in Angola in 1995. Two drunken policemen pointing AK-47's threatened to march a colleague and me into a shack for "some fun." We got away untouched, so why bring up the matter? I didn't want my boss to think that my gender was a liability.

Such lack of public discussion might explain why, amazingly, there are no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalistic safety by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists. When one considers the level of detail over protections against other eventualities -- get vaccinations, pack dummy wallets, etc. -- the oversight is staggering. No one tells women that deodorant can work as well as mace when sprayed in the eyes, for example, or that you can obtain doorknob alarms, or that, in some cultures, you can ward off rapists by claiming to menstruate.

For women seeking security tips, hostile-environment training is the way to go. Yet those short courses also rarely touch upon rape prevention. The BBC, a pioneer in trauma awareness, is the only major news organization that offers special safety instruction for women, taught by women.

Most women recognize that even the most thorough preparation cannot prevent every eventuality. Yet victims of assault say that some training might have helped them make more informed decisions, or at least live with the outcome more easily. A correspondent for a major U.S. newspaper says that for some time she needlessly blamed herself for her rape by a Russian paramilitary policeman. How, she asked herself, had she not anticipated that he would follow her back to the hotel after an interview and force himself into the room? She believes that training "would have relieved me of the guilt that I had done the wrong thing."

Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2007. © 2007 by Columbia Journalism Review.

Blogs of War

Ernie Pyle, the legendary correspondent, understood soldiers. He knew how they marched, how they mourned, how they endured. With few exceptions, the coverage coming out of Iraq today doesn't portray the grunts in the same deeply personal light. It is a different era, and most journalists have never served in the military and have only a passing acquaintance with the worlds that most soldiers come from. But for readers who want a taste of the soldier's life, a modern-day Ernie Pyle is no longer necessary; soldiers themselves are blogging their experiences from the front lines.

Since combat began in Iraq in March 2003, "milblogs," as they're called, have been cropping up in increasing numbers. Some are sophomoric and laced with obscenities, while others offer frank and poignant accounts of what it's like to fight this war. Their popularity has drawn the interest of book publishers, along with the scrutiny of military higher-ups concerned that milblogs could breach operational security. For the Pentagon there is also something else at play here: how to manage the flow of information from the field -- especially when the military's official version of events is contradicted by blogging soldiers.

In August 2004, a twenty-eight-year-old Army infantryman named Colby Buzzell, writing anonymously under the handle CBFTW (the last three letters stand for, alternately, "fuck the war" or "fuck the world"), posted his account of a vicious firefight with insurgents on his blog, My War. "We were driving there on that main street when all of a sudden all hell came down all around on us. I was like, this is it, I'm going to die. I cannot put into words how scared I was." The battle received scant media attention, and the Pentagon played down the extent to which Buzzell's brigade had even been involved in the fighting -- crediting Iraqi security forces with the victory. Days later, though, a report in the Tacoma, Washington, News Tribune, which covers Buzzell's Fort Lewis-based detachment, noted the discrepancy between Buzzell's version and the Pentagon's. This drew attention to Buzzell's blog, and soon his officers learned his identity. Buzzell was later briefly confined to base, an experience he details in his forthcoming book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, due out in October.

Since then, the military has paid closer attention to milblogs. Some have been censored, others ordered to shut down. The crackdown, though, may have unintended consequences for the military. The best of these blogs offer Americans back home a chance to connect with soldiers in ways that today's media coverage does not.

The bloggers themselves seem to be well aware that their sites are being watched. "Hey pencil pusher reading this, ready to censor/censure me, go on patrol, you Fobbit!" wrote Rusten Currie, a military intelligence officer in Baghdad, in a recent post to his blog, Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum (Latin for, "If you wish for peace, prepare for war"). ("Fobbit" is military-speak for soldiers who spend most of their time on base.) Currie continues to post heartfelt ruminations about his time in Iraq and the prospect of returning to his wife of nearly two years. "An entire year will be missing from my marriage, and I don't know how to get that back," he wrote in July.

Some of the most powerful accounts come from bloggers who have recently returned from Iraq, such as those posted by the Army reporter/photographer Fred Minnick (one of his photos is above), who was stationed in Mosul and blogs under the name Sminklemeyer (In Iraq for 365). He writes about his struggle with recurring nightmares. "I also had the dream again last night," he wrote soon after his return. "This time, I called one of those 1-800 help lines the army provides. When I made the call, I realized my hands were trembling . . . I know I need help."

Sometimes it is the absence of a post that puts the war into perspective for readers left to speculate on the blogger's fate. Since January, the blogs of at least two soldiers have gone dark after their authors were killed in action.

Monkey Business and Moral Panic

The year was 1873, the beginning of the American Gilded Age. The nation was exhausted by the Civil War. Robber barons were stealing public lands, importing cheap workers from abroad to build (and die on) the railroads, committing bank and securities fraud, and hiring thugs to beat up the newly organizing labor unions. The nation's economic structure was shifting from a very rough equality to an hourglass, with most of the wealth up top and most of the people on the bottom.

In response to all this economic dislocation and misery, at least one reformer knew exactly how to restore America's moral greatness. At Anthony Comstock's urgings, Congress made it a federal crime to send "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material (i.e., pamphlets about contraception or sexually transmitted disease, condoms, "French" playing cards) through the U.S. mail.

Comstockery is alive and well in today's United States. When citizens distract themselves from economic disruption by focusing not on common matters of public policy but on personal matters of sexual purity, social historians call it a "moral panic" -- and, from the Starr report, which almost cost us a president, to the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, the U.S. has had a runaway panic on its hands for at least a decade. Unfortunately, American journalism is making it worse -- in part by covering precisely the wrong stories about sex and politics.

Since Senator Gary Hart's infamous monkey business in the 1980s, there have been plenty of discussions about where the serious media should draw the line on coverage of public officials' sexual behavior. When is a scandal merely voyeurism, and when is it an invitation for investigative journalism? In theory, most of us agree: on the one hand, the media should never cover consensual and private adult behavior, even when it might seem unsavory. On the other, the media should always cover coercive or criminal behavior, especially when it abuses public power or reveals official hypocrisy. But in practice, for the last decade, the American media have been getting it backward.

Consider the appalling fact that only The Nation has given real coverage to serious allegations against Dr. David Hager, President Bush's controversial appointee to the Food and Drug Administration's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs. According to the reporter Ayelish McGarvey, in October 2004 Hager took the pulpit at Kentucky's Asbury College chapel and told churchgoers that he had been persecuted for standing up on "moral and ethical issues in this country," persecution that was part of "a war being waged against Christians, particularly evangelical Christians."

Here's what he meant: many people had opposed his appointment as the panel's chairman because he had worked with Concerned Women for America to block distribution of RU-486, the "morning after" birth control pill. While Hager did not become chairman, he was appointed to the committee, where, he boasted from the same pulpit, he had been influential in blocking over-the-counter distribution of RU-486. In May 2005, The Nation published McGarvey's article, in which Hager's ex-wife, Linda Carruth Davis, alleged that, during the years that he had been crusading to restrict women's medical choices, he had been raping her repeatedly, anally and painfully, often while she was drugged into sleep by prescriptions for a neurological problem. When McGarvey contacted him, Hager would not deny the allegations.

No other media outlet ran with this story. Yet anyone -- especially any public official -- who cannot respect another human being's bodily integrity can and must be called to account. Such acts matter still more when there's an intellectual link between the public figure's attitudes and behaviors and the public policies he promotes. That's precisely the case for Hager, who -- if the allegations are true -- publicly worked to deny women the right to make choices in their medical lives, while privately denying his wife choices about her physical life.

Were the allegations true? Ex-spouses say terrible things, and she wasn't under oath, both of which any editor must consider. But fact by fact, McGarvey constructs a careful story, not a casual he-said/she-said shocker. According to her lawyer and longtime friends, Davis's charges were consistent with what she'd told them at the time, as was her explanation that the reason she didn't go to court was that she had wanted to spare her sons the humiliation of a public airing. Very few women report marital rape, which, as McGarvey notes, is notoriously difficult to prosecute.

Anger added, "You can't run a newspaper to win Pulitzers," which effectively ended the discussion. Thus began my two-year odyssey on the advisory board.

And yet no media outlets followed up or demanded an explanation.

Now consider another case in which American journalism got things wrong, but in the opposite direction: the Ryan v. Ryan divorce filings. As Jack Ryan, a Republican senatorial candidate in Illinois, was sinking in the polls in his 2004 race against Barack Obama, the Chicago Tribune and the local ABC news affiliate WLS-TV succeeded in persuading a judge to release his divorce papers.

According to those filings, his wife, the actress Jeri Ryan, had wanted to get free of him in part because she found it repulsive when he repeatedly urged her to accompany him to a sex club and do the deed in front of others. Arguing, as Jeri Ryan did, that you want to divorce your spouse because your ideas of sexual intimacy are distressingly incompatible is entirely fair. But why should a citizen care? That story was domestic voyeurism, not political information.

You could argue that this story falls under the hypocrisy exemption, and that's generally how it was covered. Jack Ryan marked himself as a "family values" politician, promising to vote for some of today's biggest Comstockeries, like the Federal Marriage Amendment and restrictive "pro-marriage" policies. But this kind of journalism backfires, endorsing an essentially prurient vision in which personal sexual probity is a surpassingly relevant qualification for office. That's Comstockery all over, building up hysteria over individual sexual desires as a distraction from serious issues. Far more significant were the links between Ryan's Goldman Sachs millions and, say, his desire to cut taxes for his income bracket.

Finally, here's one recent story in which the media got things exactly right: the one about James West, the mayor of Spokane, Washington. West was accused of going online and soliciting sex from young men, sometimes in exchange for various office perks (like internships, baseball tickets, or autographed footballs). In some cases, he had offered these young men jobs and then harassed them for sexual favors. During his political career, West had vigorously opposed gay-rights measures. And yet, when the Spokane Spokesman-Review started publishing the results of its investigation into the solicitation and harassment charges, West had the gall to declare he was being persecuted for being gay. Please. Given that combination of criminal allegations and political hypocrisy, West deserved what he got.

So we know that the media can get this right. But perhaps we haven't quite understood the consequences for getting things wrong. It's about more than just the dumbing-down of the media; it's also about shrinking the space available for serious public conversation. Yes, sex sells papers -- but it can also sell out the nation. Not covering the right story (the Hager story or the West story) leaves scoundrels in public office. And covering the wrong stories shifts American attention away from the real meal of our shared public concerns and onto the mental junk food of private sex lives.

A century ago, groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the Boston Watch & Ward Society, and various temperance societies were shutting down contraceptive clinics, urging police to round up prostitutes and gay men, and smashing saloons. They were right that something in the nation was morally amiss -- but wrong about what that was. Today's groups -- like the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and the Concerned Women for America -- depend on journalists to help keep the public breathing heavily about illicit sex, so that they can gin up misleading moral panic. Too often the media go along. Anthony Comstock would be proud.

News At Any Cost

At a glance, the office of Tijuana's weekly newspaper, Zeta, gives just a hint of the kind of publication that is produced inside. It sits on a residential street in a middle-class neighborhood, and only a small plaque seems to distinguish it from the rest of the block's modest family homes. Look closer and a theme emerges: the building is set back from the street, with much of it obscured by a concrete wall; no first-floor windows are visible; and the front door has heavy grating.

Watching the paper's editor and publisher, J. Jesús Blancornelas, arrive for work dispels any doubts. A caravan of three vehicles pulls up, two Suburbans and a blacked-out Chevrolet Caprice. Out pile fourteen serious-looking men -- soldiers in the Mexican Army -- bristling with M-16 assault rifles, shotguns, copious clips of ammunition, and body armor. That level of protection would be surprising for a journalist in Baghdad, let alone for one in a quiet neighborhood thirty minutes from downtown San Diego.

The precautions are for good reason, though. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a significant majority of illegal drugs destined for the U.S. -- marijuana, cocaine, and heroin -- transit through Mexico. Tijuana, host to one of the world's most heavily traveled border crossings, is a strategic chokepoint. In the first four months of this year, there were 163 homicides in Tijuana, many drug-related.

Local journalists know how dangerous it is to shine a spotlight on the trade and the corruption it fuels among Mexican officials. Nine reporters have been killed in northern Mexico in the past decade, with the perpetrators enjoying what the Committee to Protect Journalists calls a "nearly perfect record of impunity." In such an environment, Zeta stands out, both for the work it has produced and the costs it has incurred.

Since Blancornelas started Zeta twenty-five years ago, it has been challenging the nexus between drug lords, local officials, and business leaders. As a result, Blancornelas has been wounded in an assassination attempt, and two top Zeta editors have been killed, the most recent one in June of last year.

The deaths have had a curious effect on Blancornelas. He evinces a determination to continue, but a regret for ever having started. It's a mix of emotions that can't be made any simpler by the fact that many journalists in Tijuana see Blancornelas not as a hero, but as obsessed and vainglorious. Meanwhile, the man Blancornelas believes is behind at least the first murder at Zeta is not only still free, he's Tijuana's new mayor.

"If my colleagues hadn't been killed," says Blancornelas, "I would have retired a long time ago. But I can't now. I need to fight and to clarify what's happened. That's my purpose."

We are in Zeta's conference room, where the windows look out onto a wall inches away. Blancornelas is primly dressed in a blue blazer and pants, trailed by a whiff of cologne. He speaks in precise, measured tones and, at least with strangers, smiles little.

Blancornelas did not start out as a muckraker, or dream of being one. "I was a sportswriter," he says. "But when I arrived at the paper that had hired me in Tijuana they said they only had an opening for politics. Thirty-five years later here I am."

It has been a circuitous path. With his assignment to cover politics, Blancornelas quickly gravitated toward covering the corruption endemic in the system. As Mexico's press slowly retreated in recent decades from its traditions of self-censorship and domination by the state, Blancornelas was alternately promoted and forced out of a series of papers. In 1977, frustrated after an owner had quashed one of his columns, Blancornelas and a colleague, Héctor Félix Miranda, co-founded the independent newspaper ABC. Blancornelas quickly found himself facing questionable charges of fraud, and he fled to the U.S. In 1980, he and Félix started Zeta. Though the paper was based in Tijuana, Blancornelas worked in exile in the San Diego area. Two years later, after Mexico inaugurated a new president, the charges were dropped and Blancornelas returned to Tijuana.

In the early 1980s, Tijuana was breaking free of its traditional role as a party town for American sailors and teenagers. At the center of the change was a drug cartel known as the Arellano Brothers. They were stunningly violent -- victims were often not just killed, but tortured and dismembered -- and for years effectively controlled Tijuana, living openly and opulently. Unlike many local papers, Zeta did not shy away from the Arellanos. One cover story in 1985 announced, THE MAFIA INVADES BAJA CALIFORNIA. In it, the paper peeled away some of the mystery surrounding the gang, explaining how it arrived in Tijuana, the local officials on the take, and even their addresses. In response, Blancornelas says, the government bought every copy of Zeta on the street. Zeta responded by printing another batch, this time with CENSORED! splashed across the top.

The paper was harassed from the start -- shots fired at the office, a break-in where nothing was stolen but the papers' files were rifled through. Then, eight years after its founding, Zeta suffered its first casualty.

Zeta's cofounder, Félix, chronicled life in Tijuana in an irreverent column, which he signed "Félix the Cat." It was a sort of Page Six for the drug-running and high-society crowd, and loaded with innuendo.

One of Félix's favorite targets was Jorge Hank Rhon, a local businessman who was elected mayor in August 2004. Hank Rhon was the son of one of Mexico's most prominent politicians, and came to Tijuana to run the city's storied race track, Agua Caliente, which the DEA has long suspected of money laundering. He was also an eccentric, owner of a private zoo with an estimated 20,000 animals, and the host of lavish parties.

Hank and Félix were initially friends, and Félix was invited to Hank's parties, presumably so he would provide favorable coverage. But the two had an unexplained falling out, after which Félix persistently needled Hank in his column, dubbing him (in a reference to Hank's alleged appetite for cocaine) the "Abominable Snowman."

In April 1988, not long after their friendship disintegrated, Félix was murdered. Two assailants were caught and convicted a few months later. Both worked in security at Hank's race track, and one was Hank's chief bodyguard. They acknowledged that they had hid at the track after the murder, and according to coverage in Zeta, cashed a $10,000 ticket while there. Hank, who has consistently denied any involvement, reportedly paid for his chief bodyguard's defense.

Blancornelas recalls the investigation, or lack of one. "They arrested two people," he says, "but never the intellectual author." Every week since the killing, Zeta has run an ad: "Jorge Hank Rhon, Why did your bodyguard kill me? -- Héctor 'Gato' Félix Miranda."

The attack, and Zeta's response to it, would become part of a pattern. Blancornelas launched his own investigation, often scooping the police. At times, though, it became unclear which was more important, the journalism or the investigation itself. Soon after the killing, one Zeta cover announced, THERE WERE FOUR. Blancornelas says that at the time he knew of only three suspects but decided to publish the wrong number in the hope that other papers, driven by competitive zeal and a desire to prove Zeta wrong, would get the police to divulge more information.

In the years following the assassination, Zeta's coverage continued to center on Félix's murder, Hank, and, particularly the Arellano gang. In 1997, Blancornelas wrote a piece connecting one Arellano henchman to the murder of two Mexican soldiers. Four days later, two cars cut Blancornelas off as he was on the way to work and fired roughly 200 bullets into his car. Blancornelas was hit four times but survived because his driver, who died, shielded him.

Since the attack, Blancornelas travels only between home and work, and is never without his platoon of bodyguards. "I don't go to the movies. I don't go to restaurants," he says. "I go back to my house Friday afternoon and stay until Monday morning. I don't leave for anything."

His reporting and sacrifices have made Blancornelas something of a cause célèbre. He's been profiled in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, and has won a raft of U.S.-based awards. The general picture painted is of a lone vigilante in a sea of corruption.

It's an image that irks many in the local press corps. "Blancornelas wants to think he's the only honest journalist in Tijuana, and it's just not that way," says Dora Elena Cortes, an award-winning journalist who has received her share of threats for reporting on narco-trafficking. "He's an excellent reporter. But he's also a magnificent PR man."

The distaste seems to go both ways. When I name a handful of journalists I plan on contacting, Blancornelas says that most aren't worth my time. One local reporter, who preferred not to be named, talks of respecting him but is irked by what the reporter perceives as Blancornelas's mix of haughtiness and paranoia. "The closer you get to Blancornelas, the more you see him as a human being," says the journalist. "He's arrogant and not generous with other reporters. But he's also brave and has given his life to a cause. Both perspectives are true."

Other papers report on the cartels, but rarely do they dig as deep as Zeta. Last year, for instance, the paper published a piece on the murder of a former state attorney, alleging complicity between the Arellanos and the local police. Francisco Ortiz Franco, the reporter who wrote the article, was so concerned about the fallout that Blancornelas agreed to put his byline on it instead.

Blancornelas is sixty-eight. He had been talking about finally stepping back and handing Zeta to the paper's younger journalists, which includes his son. Then last June, Ortiz, the forty-eight-year-old writer and editor whom Blancornelas tried to protect, was shot to death in his car, with his two children in the back seat unhurt. Ortiz had just begun writing about drugs. Weeks before he was killed, he had published a piece naming Arellano men who, with the apparent aid of somebody in the attorney general's office, had procured police IDs. Ortiz had also recently been hired by a Latin American press association to take another look at the Félix case.

The murder brought international attention -- and a federal-level investigation from Mexico City, a first. But other trends continued. Despite the scrutiny the case has brought, the investigation has languished; there have been no arrests. Suspicions abound. Blancornelas says the state attorney called about the killing about ten minutes after it happened. But the police, whose headquarters were just two blocks away from where Ortiz was shot, did not arrive for half an hour.

And again, Zeta seems to have spearheaded the investigation. It named several Arellano gunmen it said were responsible, as well as a number of police officers it said worked as lookouts. "We know who killed Ortiz; we've published it," says Blancornelas. "But the police haven't done anything, not even investigated to dismiss our reporting."

Such a lack of accountability is typical in Tijuana, and fuels a culture of rumor and innuendo. When drug traffickers assassinate a local official, the presumption usually isn't that he was a good guy who paid the price, but that he was in the pocket of rival traffickers. (Some local observers who have complained about Blancornelas implied just that about him, but provided no evidence.)

Still, Blancornelas takes a somewhat flexible view of what constitutes journalism. One of the first issues of Zeta after Ortiz was killed was headlined, THE SUSPECTS. Among the three named in the article was Jorge Hank Rhon, who at the time was in the middle of his mayoral campaign. Neither the police nor the investigators from the Committee to Protect Journalists have uncovered evidence linking Hank to Ortiz's murder. Asked about it, Blancornelas acknowledges he has no evidence pointing to the mayor. "We only said 'suspects,'" he says. "It was up to the police to go from there."

In a city where the truth is almost impossible to ferret out and the risks of trying are high, it's no surprise that the man who stubbornly seeks answers to the mysteries is a bit of a zealot.

Giving a tour of Zeta's newsroom one Monday morning, Blancornelas pokes his head into an empty office. He points, a bit defensively, to a poster on the wall: "It's better to lose your story than your credibility." In the office next door is a bank of computers, and Blancornelas steps up to one. "This was Ortiz's computer," he says. "We don't let anybody use it now."

Blancornelas insists that he's not on a crusade. Few in Tijuana believe it, and his habits undercut his case. "Seven years after I was left for dead, I often feel good," he says. "I have my grandchildren. But other people have died. I can't sit. I work Friday, Saturday, Sunday. All the time." Has it been worth it?

"No. I wish I had just continued to write about sports."

This American Interview

Editor’s Note: Ira Glass is the host and creator of "This American Life," a weekly public radio show produced by WBEZ-Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International that draws 1.7 million listeners per week.

David Mamet wrote in Time magazine that Glass "seems to have reinvented radio," and the show helped launch the careers of writers David Sedaris, David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell.

Glass just finished putting together a "pilot presentation" -- a shorter and cheaper version of a pilot -- for Showtime, which is interested in turning "This American Life" into a TV series.

(Department of full disclosure: Interviewer Brian Montopoli has reported a story for "This American Life.")

Brian Montopoli: One thing I've always liked about "This American Life" is the way the stories, regardless of the subject matter, make you want to go out and make friends with strangers. And this is true, I'm not just saying it ...

Ira Glass: [laughing] I hope you include that in your rendition of this in print.

What? Where I say, "this is true, I'm not just saying it?"

Yes.

Yeah, well, you guys would, so I guess it's only fair. Anyway, so to pick up where I left off, I was saying the show makes you feel that way because no matter what the story is, the storytelling just makes you feel like people are worth knowing, if that makes sense. Is that difficult to translate to TV, which doesn't operate the same way radio does?

I don't think it's difficult to translate to TV. The fact is, though, to make it translate, there are different factors that come into play. Just from making this little pilot, I feel like there are characters who come off better on the radio than they do on the TV, and then there are some characters who come off better on the TV than they come off on the radio -- simply by virtue of seeing their face.

And so you can still do it, it's just that the ingredients in the mix are different. Which is exactly what you'd expect if you take a second and think about it. Not that we did take a second and think about it.

But isn't there something about not seeing someone's face, on the radio, that allows you to sort of project a lot into whatever you're hearing? On TV, I don't know, I just feel like a little of the mystery just disappears.

No, that definitely is true. It's easier to make someone in the audience love someone on the radio. It's just easier, because the number of factors you're dealing with are fewer. You can do it on TV, but you just have to be careful how you handle it. On the radio, because you don't see the person, you empathize. It's easy to imagine yourself as them really, really quickly. Whereas on the television, from the get-go they are somebody else, and you have to kind of build up a different sort of bond with them. You can have a very fond feeling for them on the TV, but the first fact you know about them is they are not you, whereas on the radio, they appear to you for the first time as a voice in your head.

So what's it been like putting together the TV show? In the Times story that came out a couple weeks ago ...

You know, there's a much better story, actually -- well, I shouldn't say that on the record. There's a very fine story -- and the New York Times reporter did a very fine job too -- but there's a very fine story that was in the Los Angeles Times this weekend too.

You seem sort of ambivalent in that [New York] Times story, and I don't know if that was because of the way the Times framed it, or what. But you talked about how you weren't sure if you were going to walk away from the TV show or not, and how the heart of the thing wasn't there, and all this stuff. Is this -- are you just nervous? Is there something about the culture of TV that's just been a little bit frustrating? You don't really seem like an LA guy.

Well, we wouldn't be moving to LA.

Right, but still, you're in that world, I guess. Which is very different.

[laughing] If by "LA guy," you mean somebody with money, I would heartily agree.

You know what I mean, though. You guys are in your little public radio enclave in Chicago, and you're around all these smart, thoughtful people, and I sort of read that ambivalence [in the Times story] as maybe [meaning] you just haven't been so happy with whatever you've had to deal with in putting the TV show together.

Yeah. To be truthful, we have both a movie deal going with Warner Brothers, and the TV deal. And I find the people in the movie and TV business who we've been lucky enough to deal with to actually be, like, pretty smart -- really smart actually -- and kinda great to work with. And maybe we've just been lucky, I don't know.

So no real culture clash?

There hasn't been a culture clash. It would be a more dramatic story if there were, but there wasn't. There are people who have a different set of priorities, sometimes, than we do, because we're public broadcasters, and we exist in a very special space in our nation's culture -- you know, where we are actually completely exempt from all market pressures. And we can do whatever we want. Like, it's really, really different. They have very different things that they have to worry about to keep their jobs and keep their companies going. But that all seems very straightforward.

To actually answer your question, instead of mouthing off about things I don't know that much about, the reason why it's a tough choice about going into TV is actually because we have such a sweet deal in radio. I've talked about this with my staff, about how nobody gets the deal that we get, where we have 1.7 million people listening to us every week, so the audience is completely there. It's a huge, huge audience, and we're fully funded, forever -- we can just keep doing this until we all die. The funding is there, it's all set up, we're all good. The stations love us. We do great in pledge drives. We have complete creative control. We can do whatever we want. There's no adult supervision. And you just don't get that. Steven Spielberg doesn't have that. We have a huge audience, by journalism standards.

We're reporters, and for a reporter to get that many people -- that's bigger than most magazines and most newspapers. And so for us to go to TV, it has to be the right sort of setup, where they're giving us enough money to do it well, where they agree with our vision of what the thing should be, going in. And so far, so good, but it still hasn't come down to kind of like brass tacks.

With regard to the state of public radio in general, what do you think -- well first of all, let me just say this to whoever's reading this interview: NPR, PRI, and public radio are all different things. "This American Life" appears on PRI, and then goes over public radio -- it's not actually NPR. Now that I've gotten that out of the way ...

[laughing] That almost made no sense at all, actually.

It's a tough situation because you have two competing networks -- there's Public Radio International, and there's NPR. NPR makes the big news shows, and PRI does our show, and does a bunch of other shows. And everybody knows NPR's name, and nobody knows the other guy's name. And then the stations themselves run both shows.

Yeah, and then never really make the distinction.

Yeah.

But in any event, let's just talk about public radio in general. What do you think the state of public radio is, and what would you change about it if you could?

I mean, you know, like most people, if I were put in charge of things, I would enforce, incredibly selfishly, my own tastes. So I don't know if that would make public radio better. But I would enjoy it more.

I feel like public radio's in a situation where the journalism is great and has never been better, and there's never been as deep a bench of really great reporters, and enough money to put reporters wherever news is happening all over the world and still have people who were always geniuses at their job like Nina Totenberg and Robert Siegel and Scott Simon and keep them on the air. In terms of the news, it's great coverage. Where public radio falls down -- and any program director in the system will tell you this -- is innovation. One of the prices of success is that now it has a sound, and the sound is really predictable. And so what do you do, 30 years into the vision?

There isn't a lot of money that goes to innovation. I have a friend -- do you know the musician John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants?

Yeah.

OK, so, he did two pilots for WNYC. They're great. WNYC produces what I think is the single best new show in public radio, which is "On The Media," which is continually fresh and fun to listen to and smart and with original angles on all their stories. And this has the exact same feeling -- but it's about pop music. And he gets everybody, because he's a pop musician, so David Byrne is in the pilot, and -- it's been so long since I heard the pilot -- but I think it's Bikini Kill. And everybody agrees it's a great show.

And he finished it a year ago, and nobody can come up with the money to get it on the air. WNYC, which produced it, doesn't have the money. NPR literally doesn't have a programming fund. If you were to ask the head of programming at NPR, this guy named Jay Kernis, he loves the show, he wants to put it on the air, but he doesn't have a half-million dollars to just write a check with. The same thing with PRI. The woman there who's in charge of it, Melinda Ward, she doesn't have a programming fund, so she can actually get a show that she likes. She also likes the show.

So you have these three huge multimillion dollar entities -- NPR, PRI, and WNYC -- and they all like the show, which would have a natural place with the NPR audience. And honestly, I think they're all going to dick around with it for so long that Flansburgh is just going to say, "Well OK, time to make movies." This is exactly the problem in public broadcasting in general and public radio right now. You've got people, you've got innovative ideas, you've got programming executives who know what should be done next -- and, literally, there's no machinery to fund innovation. And so that's why you get one new show every four or five years.

Well, there's all that Joan Kroc money. Where does that go?

Yeah, well -- I mean, I don't actually know. [laughing] That would require actual reporting and I've never looked into it. Do you know what I mean though? I feel like what you have is a really successful network with a news product that could be doing a lot of other things with the audience it has and the talent it has, but it just isn't set up for innovation and it isn't set up to cultivate new ideas and it isn't set up to cultivate the next generation of things. And it seems like a waste to me. The Fox network is more innovative than public radio. FX is more innovative. Bravo is 10 times more innovative. And remember, it's public broadcasting's mission to actually innovate.

I've always had the impression that part of the problem is that the affiliates build around the tent poles -- "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" -- and that uniformity of sound is what makes the brand so strong, and so the affiliates think, we don't want to put on something quirky and innovative, because it's not going to fit.

But I think one of the thing's that's happened in the last few years -- and it started with the car guys, actually, and then continued with us -- is that when the car guys became the most popular hour on public radio, program directors had to kind of notice that it isn't like anything they do any other time during the week, and it's people's favorite show. And when we started our show nine years ago, we basically said, remember the car guys -- that's what this is. We were seen as a tremendous risk by stations in the beginning. And then we were fine. We were a big hit. At this point I feel like the stations actually understand that they need to do new stuff. There's space in the schedule.

At this point, the weekdays are pretty much done. NPR puts out a bunch of decent shows, other people put out a bunch of decent shows during the day that pretty much fill the day. And stations that have local programming have stuff during the day as well. The real estate that everybody's still fighting over -- that there's no uniformity about, or no consensus about -- is the weekend. ...

Where people are going on Saturday afternoons, if they're choosing not to listen to the public radio station, is they're going to music. So if somebody could actually do music on Saturday afternoons on the network level, in the way that feels right to the public radio audience, a lot of those people would come back.

I do think that a lot of the same people who listen to your show also listen to, like, "Morning Becomes Eclectic." Maybe they listen to it on the Internet. ...

Well if they're in a city where they can get "Morning Becomes Eclectic."

Right. Well, I listen to it on the Internet.

Well, most people don't listen to the radio over the Internet. You are part of a tiny elite. A vanguard.

Well, I'm flattered.

[laughing] But a very nerdy vanguard.

I listen to your show on the Internet as well. I don't even know when it's on in New York. I listen to it while I clean my apartment on the weekends.

Wow.

I don't think that puts me in a vanguard, though. I think all the vanguard people all have cleaning ladies. Anyway, and feel free to just blow this question off if you want, but ...

Wouldn't it be weird if you were to ask me a question that is so offensive that I would actually like hang up? I would totally do like a Robert Novak on you and be like, "I'm sorry, I don't talk about that anymore." [laughing] I would love that.

Sadly, I don't think my question is anywhere near offensive enough for that. I did this fellowship at NPR a few years back, and when I was doing it, I told people that I liked "This American Life." And what everyone said to me was, "Oh, you know, Ira Glass took that show to NPR and they blew him off, and so he took it to PRI."

And then I would get conflicting reports about what actually happened. And I was hoping just once and for all, there could be the definitive account of, like, whether you were blown off by NPR, and then angrily, in a huff, took your show to PRI, or what exactly happened.


I'm sorry, I don't talk about that.

[Glass hangs up. Thirty seconds later, he calls back.]

I can't believe you actually hung up.

See, that felt good. I want to do that every interview now.

It would change your reputation, that's for sure. I just thought it was like a fake clicking noise, but it was actually a real click. I'm blown away.

I guess it sort of takes some of the spice out of it that I called you back.

Yeah, it does.

So the answer to your question is, you know, I didn't do anything in a huff. What happened is that we had been on the air for about a year. Here's the fact pattern. We were on like 112, 114 stations. We were on in 7 of the 10 largest markets. We were doing huge money in pledge drives, so stations really liked us. We had won a Peabody award. We were fully funded. That's the show that they had. So that's pretty good, that's pretty successful -- that's about as successful as you get, one year in.

And we were distributing it by ourselves -- WBEZ was basically distributing it, which means calling up stations on the phone, and saying, "Don't you want to take this show? Let's send you a tape." All of that. So that's where we were. And we tried to get NPR to pick it up. And I wanted it to be NPR because I had worked at NPR since I was 19 -- at the time I was 38. So I'd spent half my life working for NPR. Literally.

So I came to NPR and the people who were in a position to make it an NPR show -- they just didn't like it as a show. They didn't get it. They didn't see what was good about it. They didn't see what stations were liking about it. And so they didn't want to take it.

Those are people at a sort of vice president level. Meanwhile, remember I had worked there since I was a teenager, so I know everybody. The people who are turning me down are people I had actually worked for, in one job or another. And so all my friends from the news division, people I had worked with, basically -- the head of "All Things Considered," and the vice president for news, and Robert Siegel -- I had been a producer for "All Things Considered" for years, and a reporter for years, and those people heard the early shows.

And they went to management and said, "We own this. We created this. Ira is ours. Ira started here when he was a kid. Everything he learned he learned on the second floor of our building. Everything he's doing on this show -- from his documentary stories to David Sedaris -- he first put onto 'Morning Edition' and 'All Things Considered.' This came out of our incubator. We should be distributing it. This is the logical next step for what we should be doing."

And finally the president of the company sort of issued an order to the people who were in charge of making these programming decisions, and said, "They're right, make him an offer." And at the time, PRI very, very badly wanted the show. And they put together a really sweet offer for us ... and meanwhile we'd get on these calls with NPR and the people wouldn't make us an offer, and finally they just said, "Well, tell us what PRI is offering you, and we'll just match that."

And I just felt like, if it's going to be exactly the same offer, and you don't have any enthusiasm for this at all, I'm just going to go with the people who actually seem like they're going to do the job, rather than the people who are slowly, grudgingly coming around to this, who I'm going to have to deal with for the next ten years or twenty years of my life. It just seemed like a really obvious choice.

Were they surprised you turned them down?

I don't think they were surprised. Because they were doing such a bad job of pitching us. And I don't think they were disappointed either. And honestly since then, so many of the NPR brass -- people got fired over this ...

They got fired?

We were chief among a number of bad programming decisions. Like other things that got away. And since then, there's been much more competition. Now, any new show that comes along, there's very much a feeling at NPR, like, oh, they've made a boneheaded mistake. The person who now has that job, Jay Kernis, is actually one of my oldest friends, and periodically we'll go get drinks. And you get two drinks in that man and he's pretty much like, "Don't you think you should be leaving PRI?" And I'm always like, "Jay, it's going great with PRI. Let's talk about something else."

At various points, various NPR executives have come to me and said, please, if you ever want to come to NPR, we would very much like to have you as a show. And that's very, very nice. At this point, I feel like it doesn't really matter. If we were an NPR show instead of a PRI show, all the same stations would be running us -- it would all be the same. It wouldn't help anybody in any way.

Thanks for clearing this up. It's weird that there are all these rumors about it ...

I feel like it took on a symbolic meaning for people at the company, especially among the people who felt like NPR wasn't taking risks, and wasn't doing enough new stuff. There's a whole cadre of people at NPR -- young people especially, but some older people, actually, including some of the most experienced people, too -- who feel like the network is not doing a lot of things it could be doing.

And I feel like we fit neatly into that idea, as a perfect fable of the failure of NPR. And at the time, I think it was true. It absolutely illustrates a problem that was at NPR. I actually think NPR is better managed when it comes to that stuff now. That they would very much like to be doing more innovative stuff.

All right. Well, I have like a cutesy final question, but I don't know ...

Bring it. Bring it, bring it.

Are you sure?

I've already hung up on you once.

That's true. All right, well, as you told me over email, you're about to get married. And I remember when you did that story about your ex-girlfriend throwing clothing on you in the changing room. You think you'll end up doing a show about getting married, about, like, this whole process?

I absolutely do not think I'm going to do a show about getting married. 'Cause the whole relationship is off the record.

The whole relationship is off the record? Was that made clear to you from the beginning?

Pretty much once you start to talk about your friends to a national audience, all your other friends make a declaration that unless stated otherwise, you're off the record. A person would have to be pretty insensitive -- even the story about the girlfriend in the dressing room, even that, I got her permission. You have to be kind of a creep not to.

Yeah. But still, like the story I did for you guys, was basically, you know, my friend had had something happen to him. It seems like an easy place to get ideas. But I can understand how it could put a strain on a relationship.

Well, she's an editor too, she's a newspaper editor, and honestly, if something came up that seemed like it was worth talking about on the radio, I would totally try to talk her into letting me talk about it. There's no question about it -- if something interesting happens, I would try to get it on the radio. But it's kind of a relief to have a non-reporting zone in your life. We don't have trouble coming up with material for the show. So I don't need to.

And honestly, something's got to be sort of spectacularly interesting in your own personal life to be worth talking about on the radio. And how often does that happen, anyway? And there's nothing more boring than a wedding, except to the people who are in it. But I mean, our wedding is exactly like everybody else's weddings, you know what I mean? And our feelings for each other are pretty much your standard feelings that people have for each other. They're huge, but there's nothing uniquely compelling about them as a story for the radio. We squarely fall into the category of stories that people often pitch for the show, which are, "that's really wonderful for you to have gone through that, but nobody wants to hear about it." And nobody recognizes that better than me and her. America doesn't need to know whether we're getting the pit bull, you know? America doesn't care.

Right. Like that you left the dirty dishes in the sink, and she was mad ...

[laughing] I mean, just for the record, she's the one who leaves the dishes in the sink.

Breaking the Barrier

Editor's Note: In A Matter of Opinion, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Victor Navasky reflects on a lifetime in magazine journalism. In this excerpt, he recalls meeting Jacobo Timerman, an Argentine writer who had been tortured -- and wanted to re-enact the experience on television.

The spring of 1981, when I had been at The Nation for three years, saw the publication of Jacobo Timerman's powerful memoir A Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. The Argentine journalist Timerman had been "disappeared," imprisoned, and tortured during the 1970s by the military junta in Buenos Aires, and his memoir vividly evoked that experience. Although some members of the organized Jewish community took exception to his argument that the mass "disappearances" were tinged with anti-Semitism, he and his book (with a huge assist from his human-rights activist publisher, Random House's Robert Bernstein) were widely celebrated.

I thought he should expand on the underlying meaning of his story for The Nation, and I was looking forward to meeting him one evening at a small dinner party in his honor. Then I opened my New York Times and there on the op-ed page was an article by a CBS television producer headlined "Torture? On TV?" In it the producer of CBS Reports, Eric F. Salzman, claimed that when he met with Timerman to ask what he wanted to discuss on his program, Timerman told him to forget about the questions: he wanted to be tortured.
Mr. Timerman looks at me, I say nothing. Is he testing to see if I will do anything for a program that will generate controversy and pull a large rating? I stare and listen for clues to see if the man is mad.

"It is not very difficult," he continues. "I will not die, don't worry. Do you know how it is done? The subject is tied down and his body wet with water. Electrodes are applied. The apparatus allows more or less energy to pass." He moves his thumb and forefinger as if twisting a dial -- "So, the body twitches and jumps. The subject howls or his flesh is burned or he may die. But it is controllable, you see. A doctor would make sure I don't die. There can be a problem of shock to the heart." He rubs his chest, making a small circle. "But it can be massaged. There can be a problem of exploding something but I have survived. I would survive. In half an hour it is over. Can you arrange this?"
Salzman wrote that he was struck silent as Timerman went on to say that there were excellent torture doctors in abundance -- in Argentina, El Salvador, Iran, Cuba, Brazil, the Soviet Union.

"If you volunteer to be tortured," Salzman told him, "you will trivialize the evil of torture. People will call it a publicity stunt."

The TV interview went on as scheduled, and there was no torture.

So that night I met Timerman at the home of a liberal labor lawyer. We were introduced, and I asked him, What's the story on the op-ed story?

In his heavily accented English, he told me, "They want me in twenty minutes to explain what I've already written in hundreds of pages. How do you explain to the American people what is torture in twenty minutes? So I said you want to explain what it is to be tortured? Torture me on television."

At dinner the toasts were plentiful and much wine was consumed while Timerman explained to us that the Argentine government said it couldn't account for the thousands of people who were disappeared, and the State Department had lists of thousands of names but declined to release them.

After dinner and after after-dinner drinks, as he was leaving, Timerman put his arm around my shoulder and said, "So tell me, Veektor, what is so terrible if I am tortured on television?"

Salzman hadn't been able to figure out whether or not Timerman was serious, and at some level neither could I. But his point was profoundly serious. How, given the media glut, do you break through and communicate the terrible truth?

A few years later, I witnessed another writer facing a similar conundrum (albeit with no torture involved). J. Kirkpatrick Sale, whom we had signed on as a contributing editor to The Nation specializing in radical environmental, green, spiritual, and other issues (what some called New Age but Kirk liked to think of as "cutting edge"), was explaining the Luddites, the subject of his new book, to an audience at Town Hall. He was one of two dozen speakers brought together by the Utne Reader to speak about alternative perspectives on the events of the day/week/year. What entranced Kirk about the Luddites, who had asked what was called in their time "the machinery question," was less their resistance to new technologies than the forceful way in which they raised the question and demanded a voice for those affected by the answers.

Kirk's way of making his point at Town Hall was to end his brief talk by picking up -- with no advance warning -- a sledgehammer and smashing a computer screen, scattering shards of glass, wires, and other technological paraphernalia all over the stage. Word of his action spread, and some months later, when a reporter from Wired magazine asked him about it, he said:

"It was astonishing how good it made me feel! I cannot explain it to you. I was on stage in New York's Town Hall with an audience of 1,500 people. I was behind a lectern, and in front of the lectern was this computer. And I gave a very short, minute-and-a-half description of what was wrong with the technosphere, and how it was destroying the biosphere. And then I walked over and I got this very powerful sledgehammer and smashed the screen with one blow and smashed the keyboard with another blow. It felt wonderful. The sound it made, the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides into the spotlight, the dust that hung in the air -- some of the audience applauded. I bowed and returned to my chair."

What had he accomplished? "It was a statement. At other forums I attempt to discuss the importance of understanding new technologies and what they are doing to us. But at that moment, when I had only four minutes to talk, I thought this was a statement better than anything else I could possibly say."

And indeed, how can one break through the mass-media fog, the miasma of platitudes, cliches, stereotypes, and untested assumptions that the increasingly conglomerated communications combines share? This is the question that bedevils all small magazines and all others who challenge the national complacency. Those of us in the opinion-journalism business are occupationally dedicated to the proposition that it can be done through critical reasoning, careful analysis, moral argument. But Timerman and Sale remind us that sweet reason alone may not always be enough.

Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2005. © 2005 by Columbia Journalism Review.

Air Jesus

It's the first Tuesday of April. In Washington, D.C., the magnolia trees are blooming, tourists crowd the sidewalk cafés, and Congress has just returned from its spring recess. CBN News has chosen this time to unveil its new and greatly expanded Washington bureau in the Dupont Circle area, where many major networks have their local headquarters; the three-story brick fortress that houses the Washington operations of CBS News is less than a block away.

CBN's new digs are abuzz with activity. The Republican Sen. Trent Lott came by for an interview earlier in the day, as did Jim Towey, who directs the White House office of faith-based initiatives. Now Lee Webb, the CBN anchor in from Virginia, sits behind the desk in one of the studios preparing to deliver the network's first half-hour nightly newscast from this gleaming set. Behind him is a floor-to-ceiling world map illuminated in violet and indigo and a screen emblazoned with CBN's logo. At his side, just beyond the camera's view, sits a squat pedestal that holds a battered American Standard Bible. Webb lowers his head and folds his hands. "Father, we are grateful for today's program," he says. "We pray for your blessing. We ask that what we're about to do will bring honor to you." Then the cameras roll.

To many people -- especially in blue-state America -- God, news, and politics may seem an odd cocktail. But it's this mix that fuels much of CBN's programming.

CBN's flagship program, the "700 Club" with Pat Robertson, is familiar to many Americans. But few outside the evangelical community know how large the network is -- it employs more than 1,000 people and has facilities in three U.S. cities as well as Ukraine, the Philippines, India, and Israel -- or how diverse its programming. And CBN, or Christian Broadcasting Network, is just one star in a vast and growing Christian media universe, which has sprung up largely under the mainstream's radar. Conservative evangelicals control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation's more than 2,000 religious radio stations. Thanks to Christian radio's rapid growth, religious stations now outnumber every other format except country music and news-talk. If they want to dwell solely in this alternative universe, believers can now choose to have only Christian programs piped into their homes. Sky Angel, one of the nation's three direct-broadcast satellite networks, carries 36 channels of Christian radio and television -- and nothing else.

As Christian broadcasting has grown, pulpit-based ministries have largely given way to a robust programming mix that includes music, movies, sitcoms, reality shows, and cartoons. But the largest constellation may be news and talk shows. Christian public affairs programming exploded after Sept. 11, and again in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. And this growth shows no signs of flagging.

Evangelical news looks and sounds much like its secular counterpart, but it homes in on issues of concern to believers and filters events through a conservative lens. In some cases this simply means giving greater weight to the conservative side of the ledger than most media do. In other instances, it amounts to disguising a partisan agenda as news. Likewise, most guests on Christian political talk shows are drawn from a fixed pool of culture warriors and Republican politicians. Even those shows that focus on non-political topics -- such as finance, health, or family issues -- often weave in political messages. Many evangelical programs and networks are, in fact, linked to conservative Christian political or legal organizations, which use broadcasts to help generate funding and mobilize their base supporters, who are tuning in en masse. Ninety-six percent of evangelicals consume some form of Christian media each month, according to the Barna Research Group.

Given their content and their reach, it's likely that Christian broadcasters have helped drive phenomena that have recently confounded much of the public and the mainstream media -- including the surge in "value voters" and the drive to sustain Terri Schiavo's life, a story that was incubated in evangelical media three years before it hit the mainstream. Nor has evangelical media's influence escaped the notice of those who stroll the halls of power. They've been courted by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Mel Gibson, and George W. Bush. All the while, they've remained hidden in plain sight -- a powerful but largely unnoticed force shaping American politics and culture.

***

Christians have been flocking to broadcasting ever since the first radio programs began crackling across the airwaves in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, evangelicals were lobbying for policies that would ensure their dominance in the religious broadcasting realm. Their activism was catalyzed by the fact that early on, the big-three networks donated rather than sold airtime to religious organizations. The Federal Council of Churches, which represented the more liberal mainline denominations, favored this system, which it believed would help keep the religious message from getting corrupted. But evangelicals worried that networks would lavish mainline churches with free airtime while giving their own ministries short shrift. In 1944, they formed the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), and that organization lobbied federal regulators. The strategy worked; the government eventually decided to let religious organizations purchase as much airtime as they could afford. Evangelical preachers were soon flooding the airwaves, while mainline broadcast ministries all but vanished from the radio dial.

In the 61 years since its founding, the NRB has grown to represent 1,600 broadcasters with billions of dollars in media holdings and staggering political clout. Its aggressive political maneuverings have helped shape federal policy, further easing the evangelical networks' rapid growth. In 2000, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission issued guidelines that would have barred religious broadcasters from taking over frequencies designated for educational programming. The NRB lobbied Congress to intervene, at one point delivering a petition signed by nearly half a million people. Legislators, in turn, bore down on the FCC, and the agency relented.

At least one mainstream media mogul has taken note of religious broadcasters' political might. In 2002, Rupert Murdoch met with NRB leaders and urged them to oppose a proposed Echostar-DirecTV merger, which they did. After the FCC nixed the deal, Murdoch's News Corporation bought DirecTV and gave the NRB a channel on it.

The NRB has taken a number of steps to ensure it remains a political player. The most dramatic came in 2002, after Wayne Pederson was tapped to replace the network's longtime president, Brandt Gustavson. He quickly ignited internal controversy by telling a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter that he intended to shift the organization's focus away from politics. "We get associated with the far Christian right and marginalized," Pederson lamented. "To me the important thing is to keep the focus on what's important to us spiritually."That didn't sit well. Soon members of the executive committee were clamoring for his ouster. Within weeks, he was forced to step down.

Frank Wright was eventually chosen to replace Pederson. He had spent the previous eight years serving as the executive director of the Center for Christian Statesmanship, a Capitol Hill ministry that conducts training for politicians on how to "think biblically about their role in government." Wright acknowledges that he was chosen for his deep political connections. "I came here to re-engage the political culture on issues relating to broadcasting," he says. "The rest is up to individual broadcasters."

As the NRB has grown larger and more powerful, so have the broadcasters it represents. Over the last decade, Christian TV networks have added tens of millions of homes to their distribution lists by leaping onto satellite and cable systems. The number of religious radio stations -- the vast majority of which are evangelical -- has grown by about 85 percent since 1998 alone. They now outnumber rock, classical, hip-hop, R&B, soul, and jazz stations combined.

Despite their growing reach, Christian networks still lag behind many secular heavyweights when it comes to audience size. About a million U.S. households tune in daily to each of the most popular Christian television shows; about 20 times that number watch CBS's top-rated program, "CSI." Likewise, Christian radio stations draw about five percent market share, on average, while regular news and talk stations attract triple that percentage. But more and more people are tuning into Christian networks. Christian radio's audience, in particular, has climbed 33 percent over the last five years, thanks in large part to the emergence of contemporary Christian music. No other English-language format can boast that kind of growth.

The goal of a more diverse program lineup is to attract larger audiences. CBN's founder, Pat Robertson, who started this trend in the late 1970s by converting the "700 Club" into a "60 Minutes"-style magazine, says he originally considered making it a music showcase. But he decided news and talk would bring more viewers. "News provides the crossover between religious and secular, and it bridges the age gap," he explains. Robertson continues to see news and current affairs as a means to an end. "If you buy a diamond from Tiffany's the setting is very important," he says. "To us, the jewel is the message of Jesus Christ. We see news as a setting for what's most important."

After remaking the "700 Club," Robertson went on to launch the first Christian radio news network, called Standard News, in the early 1990s. It was later purchased by Salem Radio. Over the next several years, American Family Radio, USA Radio, and Information Radio Network unveiled news operations. All of them, except American Family Radio, syndicate their news programming. And they've been picking up affiliates at a lightning pace, even as regular news has been dropping off the radio dial. Salem Communications, which started with around 200 stations, now airs on 1,100 -- seven times as many as broadcast National Public Radio programs. USA Radio, which in the beginning had just a handful of news affiliates, now has more than 800. Its news also can be heard on two XM Satellite Radio stations and Armed Forces Radio. USA Radio's rapid growth is due, in part, to the fact that many mainstream stations are picking up its programming.

Christian radio news networks experienced their largest growth spurt in the months after Sept. 11. That was also when CBN launched NewsWatch, the first nightly Christian television news program. The show is on three of the six national evangelical television networks, as well as regional Christian networks and the ABC Family Channel. FamilyNet TV, part of the Southern Baptist Convention's media empire, followed suit in 2004 by hiring a news staff. And at the 2005 NRB convention, Christian television networks from around the world joined forces to form a news co-op. They intend to pool footage and other resources as a means of improving coverage and helping more Christian stations get into the news business.

Many Christian broadcasters attribute the success of their news operations to the biblical perspective that underpins their reporting in a world made wobbly by terrorist threats and moral relativism. "We don't just tell them what the news is," explains Wright of the NRB. "We tell them what it means. And that's appealing to people, especially in moments of cultural instability."

***

It's Good Friday. The "NewsWatch" anchor Lee Webb is sitting behind his desk in CBN's Virginia Beach headquarters, describing the events of the day to people across America. Webb -- a wiry man with dark eyes and a white kerchief peaking out of his breast pocket -- spent much of his career in local television. He delivers the news with an air of cultivated neutrality.

Today he begins with a story on Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose story not only riveted America, but was seized by Congress and the White House. Her feeding tube had been pulled a week earlier and, Webb tells his viewers, she's succumbed to the ravages of dehydration. He says she has "flaky skin," a parched mouth, and "sunken eyes," and now resembles "prisoners in concentration camps," according to her brother. Whether or not her lips and skin have actually dried out will become a matter of debate in the mainstream media, with Schiavo's parents contending that they have, and her husband's lawyer insisting that they haven't, and that she is not suffering. But this debate will never enter CBN's coverage.

Next, "NewsWatch" cuts to an interview with Joni Eareckson Tada, a wheelchair-bound woman whom Webb bills as a "disability rights advocate." She warns that the Schiavo case will "affect thousands of disabled people whose legal guardians may not have their best wishes at heart." Tada, in fact, runs an evangelical ministry and hosts a popular Christian radio show. Webb closes the segment on a revealing, if lopsided, note, announcing that "the pro-life community says the Terri Schiavo case is proof positive that the country has a problem when it comes to activist judges."

The CBN report echoes hundreds of others that have run on Christian radio and television networks. While Terri Schiavo's name appeared in the mainstream national media only sporadically before this year, her case has been a top story on Christian news and talk programs for much of the last three years, as it combines two issues that are of critical importance to religious conservatives -- the power of the courts and the "sanctity of life." Much of the coverage on Christian networks has distorted Schiavo's condition by indicating she retained the ability to think, feel, and function. Some newscasts reported as fact her parents' contested claim that she tried to utter the words "I want to live" before her feeding tube was pulled for the last time. Others, like Janet Folger, host of the radio and TV call-in show "Faith2Action," described Schiavo as actually sitting up and talking. Evangelical pundits also demonized Schiavo's husband, Michael, and the Florida judge George Greer, who presided over the case, referring to them as murderers and invoking holocaust rhetoric. Indeed, Christian broadcasters seemed to set the tone for the emotional language that would burst into the mainstream media and the halls of Congress during Schiavo's final days.

Schiavo's parents welcomed the Christian broadcasters' attention. Months before they became the stuff of nightly news they were blazing a trail through the Christian talk show circuit. They also attended the NRB's 2005 conference, held in mid-February, to help build momentum for a grass-roots campaign to keep their daughter alive. By then they had already seen proof of the Christian broadcasters' power. D. James Kennedy -- who, in addition to hosting several talk shows, heads a lobbying organization called the Center for Reclaiming America -- boasted at one point that he was collecting 5,000 signatures an hour for a "Petition to Save Terri Schiavo." Other leaders, including James Dobson, perhaps the most influential evangelical host, shut down phone lines within Gov. Jeb Bush's office by urging their millions of constituents to call.

***

After the Schiavo story, "NewsWatch" carries one about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to China. Rice is shown climbing off the plane in Beijing, posing for grip-and-grin shots with President Hu Jintao, and responding to a reporter's question about China's record on religious freedoms. Then the report veers into the plight of China's house churches. The narrator details how those "who worship in places other than state churches continue to suffer severe persecution." Images on the screen show people singing hymns in a dusty courtyard, then a man preaching to a crowd of people who sit huddled on a living room floor. The front door is flung open, and the light pouring in lends the scene an otherworldly glow.

Evangelical networks focus a great deal of attention on stories involving persecution of the faithful. They have, for instance, kept a close eye on the conflicts that have rocked Sudan, including its Darfur region. Government-backed militias there have been marauding villages, driving millions of black Africans, many of them Christians, from their homes. More than 200,000 people have died as a result. Mainstream coverage has been sparse, given the conflict's human toll.

Christian broadcasters also tend to home in on stateside skirmishes involving Christians that are off the mainstream media's radar. This includes the case of eleven evangelicals who were arrested in 2004 while picketing Outfest, an annual gay pride event that sprawls across eight Philadelphia city blocks. The protesters, led by Michael Marcavage, a confrontational evangelical crusader and founder of "Repent America," were told by the police to leave. When they refused, they were arrested. Four of the 11 were charged with, among other things, fomenting a riot, criminal conspiracy, and "ethnic intimidation" -- as Philadelphia calls hate crimes.

The story got virtually no mainstream national coverage. But Christian news networks picked up on it promptly, and a number of evangelical talk show hosts discussed it at length. Much of the conversation revolved around the potential pitfalls of hate-crime laws, which stiffen penalties for offenses that are motivated by race or sexual orientation. Evangelical pundits argued that such laws threaten to "criminalize" Christianity, especially when they're extended to speech.

***

After the segment on Chinese house churches comes a special Good Friday package. This includes a tour of Jerusalem and an interview with Mel Gibson, who released a less-bloody version of The Passion of The Christ several weeks earlier. Webb tells viewers, "In light of its re-release CBN News visited many of the places where The Passion actually took place." He then introduces the reporter Chris Mitchell, who works out of CBN's only international bureau, in Jerusalem. Mitchell -- perched on the Mount of Olives surrounded by sweeping views of the city -- invites viewers to tour the sites of "the biblical drama that changed the world." Soon he's strolling through the Garden of Gethsemane, the dense olive groves where Christ is said to have prayed on the night of his arrest, and touring the Sisters of Zion Convent, which houses the paving stones where some believe Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate. He continues on to the Via Dolorosa, down which Jesus carried the cross. The narrow street, which wends its way through the old Jerusalem, is now thronged with tourists. Mitchell interviews some of them about the "profound experience" of visiting Jerusalem after seeing The Passion. "When you see the movie, you internalize it," says one woman, who weeps as she speaks. "Then you come here and see the street where he walked, the place that he was, and you're just thankful. You're just so thankful for his grace and his mercy, his forgiveness and for the price that he paid."

Such intimate expressions of faith are scarce in mainstream media, even though faith underlies many global conflicts and guides the choices made by millions of Americans. Religion coverage tends either to focus on institutions or to reduce religious practice to a curious spectacle. This, Christian network executives say, is part of the reason they felt compelled to enter the news and public affairs arena. They also feel that their viewers needed a "family friendly" alternative to regular news, which sometimes leans on lurid descriptions of sex and violence. The Michael Jackson trial and other sordid stories get a bare-bones treatment on Christian networks.

***

Christian news networks devote an enormous amount of airtime to Israel, and their interest has theological underpinnings. In addition to being the place where many biblical events unfolded, Israel plays a pivotal role in biblical prophecy. Most evangelicals emphasize that God granted Israel to the Jews through a covenant with Abraham. They believe that the Jews' return to Israel was biblically foreordained, and that Jewish control over Israel will trigger a cascade of apocalyptic events that will culminate in Christ's second coming. Israel's strength is vital to their own redemption.

Such beliefs explain the unwavering support for Israel expressed by some evangelical talk show hosts. Among them is Kay Arthur, whose radio and TV program, "Precepts For Life," offers audiences biblical solutions to everyday dilemmas such as divorce and addictions. She took to the stage at the Israeli Ministry of Tourism Breakfast, held in conjunction with the 2005 NRB conference, and told the hundreds of broadcasters in the audience, "If it came to a choice between Israel and America, I would stand with Israel." Janet Parshall, host of a popular political program that also runs both on radio and TV, implored the Israelis in attendance, "Please, please, do not give up any more land." Lest anyone think her alone in her zeal, she urged all those who believed "in the sovereignty of Israel" to stand. Virtually everyone in the room got up.

Some influential evangelical hosts -- among them Arthur, Parshall, and Pat Robertson -- sometimes broadcast live from Israel and urge listeners and viewers to visit the country. Their pleas have helped persuade thousands of American Christians to brave the bloody intifada for a chance to savor the sights and smells of Christ's homeland, while supporting Israel's battered economy.

The Israeli government has responded with gratitude. Senior officials meet regularly with evangelical broadcasters. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Pat Robertson a taped message for his 75th birthday, thanking him for his stalwart support. In addition to staging lavish events in the broadcasters' honor, the country's tourism ministry rents one of the largest booths at each year's NRB conference. This year's event also featured a number of other Israel-focused exhibits, including the burned-out hull of a Jerusalem city bus that was struck by a suicide bomber in January 2004. Part of the roof had been ripped off and all that was left of the rear seats was a jumble of twisted steel and charred upholstery. Near the bumper hung a poster with images of bomb-laden Palestinian boys. It read: "When Palestinians love their children more than they hate Israel, then there will be peace in Palestine."

The turmoil gripping the Middle East has proven to be a particularly appealing topic for shows like the International Intelligence Briefing and Prophecy in the News, which interpret world events -- be it the rise of the European Union or the Asian tsunami -- in light of biblical prophecy. This approach tends to cast events that flow from controversial human choices as the natural and inevitable march of destiny. Prophecy-focused shows suggest that the war in Iraq was foretold in the Bible, for instance.

Some political talk shows go even further out on the apocalyptic edge. Among them is the "700 Club," which airs on numerous mainstream stations and reaches about a million U.S. viewers each day. Its Feb. 25 edition featured an interview with a man named Glenn Miller, touted on the "700 Club" web site as a "proven prophet." A scholarly looking man, Miller sat nestled in an armchair, a faux-urban skyline glittering in the background, and explained why God had sent America to war with Iraq. "It has nothing to do with terrorism," he told Pat Robertson's son, Gordon. "It has nothing to do with oil. It has everything to do with that there's 1.2 million Muslims that have been deceived by the false God Allah, and that the God of heaven, Jehovah, is now in the process of doing war if you will against that spirit to ... break the power of deception so those people can be exposed to the gospel." As Miller spoke, Robertson nodded in sympathy. At one point, Robertson chimed in with the tale of a CBN reporter who was embedded with one of the first infantry divisions to march into Baghdad: "He said there was a sense among the troops -- and he had this personal sense as well -- that this was a spiritual victory, that this was a movement in the heavenlies."

Some evangelical talk show hosts see more conflict on the horizon in the Middle East. For instance, J.R. Church of "Prophecy in the News" recently predicted that the United States would attack Syria, probably with a nuclear bomb. As proof the host pointed to a passage from Isaiah, which warned that Damascus would be reduced to a "ruinous heap."

Once "NewsWatch"'s Jerusalem tour is over, Mel Gibson appears. He's sitting on a dimly lit sound stage opposite the reporter Scott Ross. The walls are covered with posters for The Passion, and throughout the interview images from the film flash across the screen. Gibson talks about the making of the movie, which he calls "the culmination of a 15-year journey of faith," and about how America "is a huge nation based on Christian principles from the Constitution."

Gibson began appearing regularly on Christian news and talk shows in the months leading up to the The Passion's original release -- part of a well-coordinated marketing campaign that leaned heavily on Christian radio and TV. Christian networks ran hundreds of promotional spots and behind-the-scenes specials on the film. It was a fruitful partnership for Gibson, who has watched The Passion become the highest-grossing R-rated film in U.S. box office history. As he told those at the 2005 NRB conference, "It was largely because of the people in this broad organization that the film was able to get out there and be seen."

Gibson's words notwithstanding, it's difficult to know just how much of The Passion's success can actually be attributed to Christian broadcasters, since it was also promoted through other channels. But the story of The Omega Code, a 1999 apocalyptic thriller, provides a clearer illustration of the broadcasters' power. The film's release wasn't accompanied by the standard flurry of marketing. No advance press screening, no reviews, and minimal advertising. But the family of one of its producers, Matthew Crouch, owns Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the largest of the Christian TV networks, which promoted the film tirelessly. The result: The Omega Code was the tenth highest-grossing film on its opening weekend, with a per-screen average of nearly $8,000 -- higher than that of any other movie that weekend. The film's success stunned the mainstream media, Hollywood insiders, and even TBN executives. "We had no idea we had that power in America," says Robert Higley, the network's vice president for sales and affiliate relations.

***

In the years since The Omega Code's release, Christian broadcasters have brought their power to bear in the political arena as never before. This began a few months after the 2000 presidential election, when President Bush invited the NRB's executive committee to join him and Attorney General John Ashcroft for a meeting in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. After the gathering the NRB's board chairman wrote an exuberant message to members, saying there was a "new wind blowing in Washington, D.C., and across the nation ... . The President has surrounded himself with a wonderful staff of people of faith. And it's obvious that people of faith are being welcomed back to the public square." The message also urged members to seize the opportunity to "make a difference in our culture" -- which in the parlance of religious conservatives generally means effecting political change.

In the months that followed the Roosevelt Room gathering, the NRB executive committee continued to meet periodically with senior White House staff members. On occasion, Bush himself attended. And monthly NRB-White House conference calls were established to give rank-and-file NRB members a direct line to the Oval Office.

George W. Bush also attended NRB's 2003 convention and gave a speech, much of it dedicated to promoting the looming war in Iraq. At the event, the NRB passed a resolution to "honor" the president. Though the NRB is a tax-exempt organization, and thus banned from backing a particular candidate, the document resembled an endorsement. The final line read, "We recognize in all of the above that God has appointed President George W. Bush to leadership at this critical period in our nation's history, and give Him thanks."

Many evangelical networks and program producers are also tax-exempt nonprofits. But while most were careful not to endorse candidates by name, they openly pushed the Republican ticket in the run-up to the 2004 election. During his last pre-election broadcast, the International Intelligence Briefing host Hal Lindsey told audiences that liberals were determined to "bring about our literal annihilation," and that "a vote for the conservative cause ... is a vote to ... reverse America's decline and restore her to the path of morality, conscience, and strength of character. It's a vote to continue America's return to her rightful place as the strongest beacon of hope in a terrified world." Other broadcasters went further, launching and promoting massive voter-registration drives with the apparent goal of helping Republicans clinch a victory. The host James Dobson held pro-Bush rallies that packed stadiums and told his seven million U.S. listeners that it was a sin not to vote.

During the pre-election frenzy FamilyNet, the television arm of the Southern Baptist Convention's media empire, added a political talk show to its formerly entertainment-heavy lineup. It was also during this period that it established its news department. The network, which reaches 30 million homes, reported live from both parties' conventions, and ran evening coverage on election day -- all of it salted with pro-Bush commentary. Several other Christian networks also ran continuous, live election coverage for the first time. Much of it carried a clear bias. USA Radio Network, for example, ran pieces produced to sound like news stories, but with a single conservative perspective. One segment, based solely on an interview with the former CIA analyst Wayne Simmons, reported that Osama bin Laden spent years laying plans to destroy America, only to have them thwarted by a tough-talking Texan. "He never planned on running into a president with the strength, character, and conviction of George W. Bush," Simmons said. "If George W. Bush wins the presidency, his fate -- meaning Osama bin Laden's fate -- is sealed. If John Kerry wins, he'll go back to business as usual because he knows he'll have another administration in there where he did nothing and let them plan attacks on us."

***

The role that evangelicals are credited with playing in the recent election seems only to have improved broadcasters' access to power. During the opening session of the 2005 NRB convention, Wright described a recent lobbying excursion to Capitol Hill. "We got into rooms we've never been in before," he said. "We got down on the floor of the Senate and prayed over Hillary Clinton's desk." He also explained that the NRB was lobbying to get its handpicked candidate appointed to the FCC -- although he refused to identify the person by name. At the convention, the NRB also unveiled its new "President's Council," a committee dedicated to strengthening "relationships with men and women in positions of influence and power," according to the glossy brochure. The council's next event, scheduled for September, is to include a private, after-hours tour of the U.S. Capitol, a special White House policy briefing, and a hobnobbing session with lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the broadcasters have turned their attention to what has become the front line of the culture wars: the courts. Conservative Christian pundits have long proclaimed that our nation is in moral tatters, and blamed a series of court decisions -- among them Roe v. Wade and the 1962 ban on school prayer -- for unraveling our mores. But the raging battle over President Bush's judicial nominees and the prospect of a Supreme Court vacancy have pushed the issue of the "out of control" judiciary to the top of their agenda.

In recent months, evangelical broadcasters have dedicated program after program to bemoaning "judicial tyranny," and urging audiences to agitate for the "nuclear option" -- changing Senate rules so Democrats can no longer filibuster and thereby block nominees they oppose. The judiciary was also front and center during opening week at the network's new Washington bureau. A parade of senators -- all of them Republican -- made their way into the studio, to go on camera advocating the nuclear option. During his interview, broadcast as part of "NewsWatch"'s inaugural Washington, D.C., program, Trent Lott stood with studio lights glinting off the American flag pin on his lapel, and held up a scrap of paper with a list of senators' names and how they intended to vote on the initiative. The tally seemed to be stacking up in his favor. Pat Robertson, who interviewed Lott, asked no tough questions and offered not even a passing nod to opposing viewpoints. Instead, Robertson scored Democrats for trying to "eliminate religious values from America" by blocking the appointment of conservative judges. All the while, the dizzying blend of God, news, and politics that he has crafted and honed was bouncing off satellites, winding through thousands of cable systems, rippling over the airwaves, and glowing on television screens across America.

The Case for Comics

It has been nearly 20 years since comics could safely be dismissed as kids’ stuff. In 1986 three books changed the way Americans saw the medium. Two of them — Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — brought a sense of gloomy realism to the superhero genre. The third, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, used cartoon conventions to tell of his father’s experience in the Holocaust, depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. Magazines were suddenly full of stories about comics “growing up,” and the term “graphic novel” entered the literary lexicon.

Somehow “graphic journalism” didn’t make the headlines. But since the renaissance of the mid-'80s, more and more writers and artists have been producing serious nonfiction comics about current events, from war crimes to hip hop. In the mid-1990s, Joe Sacco’s two books on Palestine were hailed as groundbreaking works and made Sacco the best known of the new graphic journalists. Now comics, or graphic, journalism is turning up in daily newspapers, where its inherent subjectivity contrasts sharply with the newsroom’s dispassionate prose — another round in the debate over what journalism should be in the 21st century.



In the Shadow of No Towers: Art Spiegelman, courtesy Pantheon Books

In the Oct. 10, 2004, issue of The Edmonton Journal, for example, David Staples and Jill Stanton used the comics format to tell the story of Dave Eamer, a Canadian truck driver who lost the use of his legs in a highway accident and went on to become North America’s first paraplegic long-distance trucker. The Oregonian has adopted a regular comics column, called “CulturePulp,” in which M.E. Russell depicts, among other things, his experiences running a marathon, hunting wild mushrooms, and watching a risqué lounge act. Perhaps not to be outdone by the competition, Willamette Week, a weekly paper in Portland, adopted the comics format for record reviews and interviews with bands. Those newspapers are following the lead of magazines like The New Yorker, which had Spiegelman cover the 2004 GOP national convention, and Details, which featured Sacco’s coverage of the Bosnian war crimes trial in 1998, Peter Kuper’s depiction of the 1997 Burning Man festival, and Kim Dietch’s account of the execution of Ronald Fitzgerald.



Culturepulp, M.E. Russell, courtesy of the artist.

The move toward respectability began in earnest in the 1970s, when The Comics Journal — the genre’s leading trade magazine — began agitating for serious study of the art form. The underground comics of the previous decade had helped demolish some of the barriers to more adult work, and the emergence of “direct market” comics shops opened a niche for small presses, many of which were doing this kind of work. The creators increasingly experimented with new artistic styles and narrative strategies, and comics journalists have adapted these, searching for innovative ways to present the news.

Comics journalism entails a startling variety of approaches and styles. Something of that aesthetic range is represented by the two main pieces in the 1989 book Brought to Light. In one half of the volume, Joyce Brabner and Thomas Yeates tell of the 1984 bombing at a press conference in La Penca, Nicaragua, which killed eight people and injured 28 others. The presentation is straightforward, using plain language and realistic illustrations, and drawing on the accounts of witnesses and the evidence presented in the Christic Institute’s lawsuit alleging CIA involvement in the bombing.

Flip the book over, and you find a story with similar themes told in a very different manner. The celebrated comics innovators Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz present a fable-like retelling of CIA history, narrated by a lonely, alcoholic eagle wearing an ugly checkered sports coat. Sometimes painterly, sometimes cartoonish, in places using techniques of collage, the piece outlines a record of atrocities culminating in the Iran-contra affair. The tone wavers between the confessional and the bombastic, and the imagery employs heavy symbolism, with human chess pieces, sprinting swastikas, and swimming pools full of blood.

But the facts are there, and the nightmarish surrealism seems to fit the subject matter. Indeed, the reader is forced to question the propriety of the standard journalistic conceits — the calm recitation of facts, the carefully hedged allegations, the measured tone. A drunken eagle swimming in blood may actually come closer to the point.

Brabner explained the strategy for Brought to Light: “There were two ways that people were relating to the story” of the CIA’s role in Nicaragua. “One was that people get wrapped up — too wrapped up — in the conspiracy stuff. The other was moral outrage, based on a historical analysis. And I thought, ‘We don’t have to sacrifice; we can do a topsy-turvy book.’”

Such code-switching, the ability to alternate between the realistic and the symbolic, is a major strength of comics journalism. It is also one reason why editors are likely to shy away from it — or, as with the recent newspaper strips, to relegate comics journalism to cultural coverage and human-interest stories. When it comes to the front page, newspapers favor plain language, in part to protect the readers from the seductions of rhetoric, of art. And comics are irreducibly artistic.

But such reasoning also cuts the other way. The hard-nosed, facts-are-facts tone of “journalistic language” is also seductive. Plain-speaking is itself a kind of rhetoric, which wins trust precisely by seeming to leave rhetoric aside.

Art Spiegelman argues, “The phony objectivity that comes with a camera is a convention and a lie in the same way as writing in the third person rather than the first person. To write a comics journalism report you’re already making an acknowledgment of biases and an urgency that communicates another level of information.”

Spiegelman’s latest book, In the Shadow of No Towers, plays with the dissonance between subjectivity and objectivity and uses it to draw the reader into the events described. The book, which includes strips Spiegelman created for publications like Die Ziet, The Forward, Internazionale, and the London Review of Books, tells of Spiegelman’s experience seeing the World Trade Center towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001, and graphically depicts the atmosphere of paranoia and despair that followed the attacks. Appearing in cartoon form on the page, Spiegelman says: “I insist the sky is falling; they roll their eyes and tell me it’s only my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. ... That’s when time stands still at the moment of trauma.” As he speaks, the panel turns. It gives the impression of frozen time. And, turned fully sideways (twice), the frame itself forms the image of the twin towers. This image literally closes in on Spiegelman; it eclipses his speech.

At the end of the strip, the reader is left fully outside the frame, but inside the narrative. We see what the narrator sees. Not bad for a motionless series of two-dimensional drawings.

Of course, the effect relies on a disruption of the ordinary mechanics of the medium. Comics do freeze time with the still image; but by placing these images in sequence, they also provide a sense of motion, of change. Comics are not merely a collection of images, but a collection of images placed in deliberate — though not necessarily chronological — order. Unlike much of photojournalism, the images are not intended to stand alone, each seeming to capture the whole story in a single moment. And unlike video and film, with comics the entire series is available to view simultaneously.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t similarities with these other media: When photographs appear in a deliberate sequence, they share many of the narrative characteristics of drawn comics, as do video and film when they slow their presentation down and perceptibly reveal their underlying structure — a series of still images.

On the other hand, comics can also incorporate a complex sequence of events, an entire history, into a single composition. The cover of Seth Tobocman’s 1999 War in the Neighborhood, for example, shows a standoff between the police and protesters outside a squat on New York’s Lower East Side. The image wraps around to the back cover, which features a cut-away of the building. Each room shows a different scene from the squat’s history — repair work, a party, a meeting, a fight, a couple holding their newborn baby. Past and present are spliced together on the page. You can see at a glance what the protesters are seeking to defend.

While working in a very different style, Ted Rall also uses visuals to convey the experiential aspects of his stories. His 2002 book, To Afghanistan and Back, features a dozen war-zone dispatches and a forty-nine-page “graphic travelogue” of his trip. While the essays tell us more about Afghan culture and politics, as well as the progress of the war, the cartoon gives a much clearer sense of what it felt like to be there, what Rall himself actually experienced — the fear, the frustration, the sense of the absurd. He writes at one point, “I was in the most dangerous country on the planet, during a war, at the front. And I was bored.” His cartoon doppelganger stares blankly into space.

Of course, comic-book journalists face many of the same difficulties as those working in more conventional media — questions of bias, unreliable sources, language barriers, and ethical dilemmas. But their strategies for resolving them are quite different from those of standard newspaper reporting or broadcast journalism.

In Palestine: In the Gaza Strip, Joe Sacco remembers a conversation with two Israeli women. One asks, “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story, too?”



Palestine, Joe Sacco, courtesy Fantagraphics

He reflects: “And what can I say? ... standing there with two girls from Tel Aviv, it occurs to me that I have seen the Israelis, but through Palestinian eyes — that Israelis were mainly soldiers and settlers to me now, too.”

He invites one of his new friends to the Arab market, to show her the Palestine he has seen. Instead, he discovers that walking beside an Israeli, surrounded by Palestinians, her fear is contagious. The Palestinians, who have been so kind to him, whom he has lived among for weeks, suddenly appear strange and hostile. Sacco feels himself near to panic. It is an enlightening moment. However briefly, he does see the conflict from the other side, and he realizes that the Israeli experience is not just about seizing land and conducting raids, but also about the quiet tension — the trepidation of a young woman walking through the market. Such ambivalence fits well with the complexities of the Palestinian territories.

Sacco recognizes that his perspective has been limited, perhaps even compromised, by his immersion into Palestinian life. More traditional correspondents covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might have the same insight, but are largely unable to deal with it in their stories. Sacco, meanwhile, does not deny the reality of what he has seen, or try to balance it by staying with settlers or embedding with the Israeli Defense Forces. Nor does he apologize for his views, even with their blind spots and contradictions. Instead, he shows us what he has learned — including those elements that frustrate any easy conclusions. “What I’ve seen before my eyes,” Sacco tells me, “isn’t often balanced.”

In comics journalism, more so perhaps than in any other medium, the reporter’s role is consistently emphasized. He is often present, not merely as a voice or a talking head, but as a moral viewpoint and as a participant in the events described. “You become part of a story if you’re a journalist,” Sacco says. “I mean, you can try to write yourself out of it, but you become involved. I think it’s more honest to show that your involvement affects people.”

As the reporter comes into focus, we see that he is not a neutral conduit for news and information, but a person like ourselves — a fallible human being, vulnerable to bias and ignorance and error. By acknowledging his own humanity, the writer can encourage the reader to think critically about what he or she reads.

Comics are well suited to that role because of the inherent narrative properties of the medium. They are not merely illustrated stories, or pictures matched with commentary. Instead, the narrative relies on both the words and the pictures; meaning is produced by the interaction of image and text. Yet each element remains to some degree independent of the other. For this reason, and because several sets of text-image blocks can appear side by side on the same page, comics are well suited to represent the fragmentation of experience during crisis, or the incommensurable views of opposing sides in the midst of conflict, or the kaleidoscopic chaos of a desert carnival like Burning Man.

Moreover, by mixing written words and images, comics have the inherent ability to juxtapose a literal retelling and artistic symbolism, or conversely, symbolic language and representational imagery. includes a short bit titled “Weapons of Mass Displacement,” in which Spiegelman (again appearing in cartoon form) sums up our national neurosis: “Remember how we demolished Iraq instead of Al-Qaeda.” As he speaks, his head changes places with a lampshade, and then his hand, and then his foot. He and his cat switch positions, and roles. All the while, the visual displacement heightens the sense of absurdity.

The independence of the words and the pictures allows for an overlay of subjective and objective storytelling. Tensions between the written word and the image can be used to highlight uncertainties, ambiguities, and ironies that other media might inadvertently play down or deliberately ignore.

All of this suggests, simply, that comics open possibilities for journalists that are less available in other media. And perhaps more importantly, they add to the options available to readers, who have lately demonstrated a hunger for voice and meaning in news coverage. Witness the proliferation of blogs and the continued popularity of zines. Like zines and blogs, comics drop the pretense of detachment and emphasize perspective. Furthermore, comics are visually engaging and famously easy to understand. They are, as Sacco says, “inviting. It looks like an easy read.” After all, as everyone knows, even kids read comic books.

GOP Linguapalooza

Yesterday, Associated Press reporter David Espo filed an article covering the spat that has broken out between the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and certain Republicans over an AARP poll that found Americans unreceptive to a Social Security system with "private accounts" after they were told about the "consequences associated with implementation."

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, argued that the AARP's use of the phrase "private accounts" to describe the plan was one of the reasons for the muted support. To McLaughlin, those are loaded words. Jeff Love, AARP's research director, dismissed the argument, telling AP's Espo that "private accounts" is "the phrase we've always used. It's a descriptive phrase. I don't think it has any derogatory or pejorative meaning to it."

This debate, as some in the blogosphere have noted, has a far greater purpose that the exchange of hot air between a pollster and a lobbyist. Rather, this a debate directed at the press as each side works to frame the debate around its preferred jargon.

While most of the haggling over language goes on behind closed doors, The Washington Post's interview with President Bush last week put on display the tug-of-war that is being fought.

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Tin Soldier

In April 2004, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier named Jonathan Keith Idema started shopping a sizzling story to the media. He claimed terrorists in Afghanistan planned to use bomb-laden taxicabs to kill key U.S. and Afghan officials, and that he himself intended to thwart the attack. Shortly thereafter, he headed to Afghanistan, where he spent the next two months conducting a series of raids with his team, which he called Task Force Saber 7. By late June, he claimed to have captured the plotters, and started trying to clinch a deal with television networks by offering them "direct access" to one of the terrorists who, he said, had agreed to tell all.

Idema, who was paying an Emmy Award-winning cameraman to document his activities, even distributed a sample tape of himself arresting people and interrogating hooded suspects. In one scene he is shown blocking a road and emptying passing vehicles. "Put your fucking hands up or I'll blow your fucking brains out," he screams at a group of men who have shuffled bewilderedly off a bus and are standing with their flimsy tunics whipping in the wind.

In exchange for footage and access, Idema wanted a minimum of $250,000 and prominent play. He asked that ABC send Peter Jennings or Christopher Cuomo to cover the story. Ultimately ABC turned the story down, as did CNN. A CBS spokesperson, Kelli Edwards, says the network "never seriously considered" it, although Idema was regularly e-mailing Dan Rather's office and in June the network sent two employees to Idema's Kabul headquarters to pick up the sample tape.

It appears that Idema still hadn't sold the taxicab story by July 5, when his situation took a turn for the worse. The Afghan police raided his headquarters and discovered eight prisoners, some of them tethered to chairs in a back room, which was littered with bloody cloth. The men later told reporters that they had been starved, beaten, doused with scalding water, and forced to languish for days in their own feces. Afghan authorities determined that none of the detainees had links to terrorism and set them free. Idema, on the other hand, was arrested, along with two other Americans (the cameraman and a former soldier) and four Afghans, and charged with running an unauthorized prison and torturing its inmates. After a cursory trial, he was sentenced to serve 10 years. (This case is on appeal.)

For all its outlandish twists, the saga of the taxicab plot was not extraordinary for Idema, who over the years had fed the press a variety of sensational material that seemed to shed light on the shadowy world of secret soldiers, spies, and assassins. This time the story never ran, but Idema has been a key source for numerous questionable stories that did. A self-proclaimed terror-fighter who has served time for fraud, Idema took a willing media by storm, glorifying his own exploits, padding his bank account, and providing dubious information to the American public.

In January 2002, Idema sold CBS sensational footage, which he called the "VideoX" tapes, that purported to show an al Qaeda training camp in action. The tapes became the centerpiece of the bombshell 60 Minutes II piece, "Heart of Darkness," reported by Dan Rather and touted as "the most intimate look yet at how the world's deadliest terrorist organization trains its recruits." Idema also sold video stills to a number of print outlets, including The Boston Globe. MSNBC, ABC, NBC, the BBC, and others later replayed the tapes. Questions are now emerging about their authenticity, some of which were detailed in a piece by Stacy Sullivan in New York magazine in October.

Idema also served as an expert military commentator on Fox News and was a lead character in Robin Moore's best-selling book "The Hunt for Bin Laden," which was supposed to chronicle the exploits of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. And he fielded hundreds of interviews with major newspapers, television networks, and radio stations, which seemed to take his swaggering claims – that he was an active-duty Green Beret in Afghanistan, an undercover spy, an explosives expert, and a key player in the hunt for Osama bin Laden – at face value. Idema used the platform the media provided to spread dubious information, much of it with crucial implications for national security and foreign policy. For example, he claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate Bill Clinton; that bin Laden was dead, and that the Taliban was poisoning the food that the United States was air-dropping to feed hungry Afghans. (In fact, people were getting sick from eating the dessicant packed with the food.)

Idema's career as a media personality reached its peak during the final breathless weeks of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Much of the information he provided during that period echoed the Bush administration's hotly contested rationale for war. He told MSNBC that the link between Iraq and al Qaeda was "common knowledge" on the ground in Afghanistan, and claimed in an interview with WNYC radio's Leonard Lopate that "Iraq has been involved in supporting al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with money, with equipment, with technology, with weapons of mass destruction." He told other wide-eyed journalists that there was ample evidence linking "Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to al Qaeda and to the attacks on September 11," and professed to have firsthand knowledge of nuclear weapons being smuggled from Russia to all three members of the "axis of evil" – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Few in the media questioned Idema's claims, much to the alarm of some who knew him.

"The media saw this outfitted, gregarious, apparently knowing guy, and they didn't check him out," says Ed Artis, chairman and founder of the humanitarian organization Knightsbridge International, who met Idema in Afghanistan in late 2001 and later tried to warn the government and media organizations that Idema was misrepresenting himself. "They ran story after story that furthered the cachet of a self-serving, self-aggrandizing criminal."

Idema's U.S. office is tucked inside a hulking brick warehouse in Fayetteville, N.C. – home to Fort Bragg, America's largest military base and command center for the U.S. Army Special Operations. There's little to distinguish the building from its industrial surroundings except the dark-tinted windows, and the red "Restricted Access" plaque that clings to the front door. Inside, the cavernous space is cluttered with evidence of Idema's Afghan mission: crumpled boxes of medical supplies, a lime-green presentation board bearing an organizational chart for al Qaeda, a massive topographical map of Afghanistan. Movie posters of scowling, leather-clad action heroes plaster the surrounding walls, including a particularly large one from Men in Black over Idema's desk. It shows two movie stars clutching super-sized guns and reads, "Protecting the Earth from the Scum of the Universe."

The décor reflects Idema's decades-long quest to fashion himself an action hero. He joined the Army in 1975 and qualified for the Special Forces, but his performance was often lacking. In an evaluation report dated July 7, 1977, Capt. John D. Carlson described him as "without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man that I have ever known." In 1978 he transferred to a reserve unit where he served until 1981, when he was relieved of his duties, in part for his "irrationality" and "tendency toward violence." His military records indicate that he never saw combat.

After leaving active-duty service, Idema ran a series of businesses related to special operations – including a counterterrorism training school and a traveling special-operations exposition – in partnership with another former Green Beret, Thomas Bumback. During this period, which spanned the 1980s and early '90s, he claims to have been involved in a series of "black ops," or secret military missions.

He was also compiling a long arrest record on charges including bad checks, assault, possession of stolen property, and discharging a firearm into a dwelling. Then, in 1994, Idema was tried and convicted of defrauding 58 companies of about $260,000, according to The Fayetteville Observer. He served three years in prison. It was while awaiting sentencing that Idema launched his first media offensive, trying to sell a story about nuclear material being smuggled out of Russia. Gary Scurka, an investigative journalist and recipient of numerous prestigious awards, eventually produced a 60 Minutes piece based, at least in part, on information Idema had provided.

Over the next decade, Idema continued to court the media with help from a faithful cadre of friends – among them Scurka, the best-selling author Robin Moore, and Edward Caraballo, the cameraman who would later be imprisoned with Idema in Afghanistan. He met with little success, though, until Sept. 11, 2001, when a shell-shocked public, desperate to make sense of the senseless, began groping for information. Idema gladly obliged.

On Sept. 12, 2001, Idema appeared on KTTV, Los Angeles' Fox affiliate, which billed him as a "counterterrorism adviser." He told audiences that three Canadian jetliners might have been hijacked, along with the four U.S. planes. By late October, Idema was in Afghanistan, telling associates that he planned to help two humanitarian groups – Partners International Foundation and Knightsbridge International – distribute food to hungry Afghans, and he brought along a National Geographic film crew, headed by Scurka, to make a film about his efforts. (Both aid groups say he misrepresented his plans in order to get them to cooperate.)

Idema, a stocky man who even in the Afghan hinterlands kept his salt-and-pepper hair died black, quickly adopted a quasi-military look – dark sunglasses, dust-colored fatigues, a black-and-white kaffiyeh draped around his neck. The style reflected his expanding repertoire of roles. Along with the human rights work and the documentary making, he claimed he was offering military advice to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban. Meanwhile, he sold a variety of services to reporters, telling them he was Donald Rumsfeld's special representative to the Northern Alliance, or insinuating that he was working for the CIA or the Army Special Forces.

By December, Idema was serving as a commentator for Fox News, which paid him $500 per appearance, and charging journalists $1,000 a head for tours to Tora Bora, the sprawling cave complex where U.S. forces were battling al Qaeda troops. According to reporters, the trips included press conferences with Idema himself. Some of Idema's media schemes showed extraordinary enterprise. In one case, he reportedly lured a local warlord named Hazrat Ali to the Spin Ghar Hotel in Jalalabad for a press briefing and charged reporters $100 each to attend. It later emerged that he had told Ali that the journalists were Pentagon officials.

It's not difficult to understand why Idema – a self-proclaimed government operative with a silver tongue, striking looks, and a love of the spotlight – would appeal to reporters who, in late 2001, poured into war-ravaged Afghanistan desperate for stories. The war was being fought largely by Special Forces soldiers, who call themselves "quiet professionals" and assiduously avoid the press. Lack of information bred a sense of urgency. "The media were in a frenzy," explains Artis of Knightsbridge International. "They were interviewing each other about what they'd interview someone about if they had someone to interview." Idema also seems to have capitalized on the U.S. military's increasing reliance on contractors, and the confusion over who had authority to speak on the government's behalf.

In addition to courting reporters, Idema sometimes threatened them. Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News reported that Idema shot at him "point-blank" during an argument. And some journalists were put off by his violent tendencies and overblown swagger. A group of photographers referred to Idema, who adopted the nickname "Jack" in Afghanistan, as Jack Shit.

After only two months in Afghanistan, Idema claimed to have found what would become the lynchpin of his widening media offensive: seven hours of footage that purportedly shows al Qaeda training camps in action. Before long, Idema had sold video stills to several publications and enlisted the William Morris Agency to auction off the first-time U.S. broadcast rights. "The intent is to sell the tapes to the highest bidder at terms that are ultimately satisfactory to Mr. Idema," explained a letter signed by Wayne S. Kabak, chief operating officer of William Morris, and hand-delivered to Fox News' New York offices on Jan. 9 – one day before the auction was slated to take place. The terms included giving Idema "on-air credit as the person who procured these tapes" and the right to refuse any bid under $150,000.

These conditions, along with Idema's dark past, gave some networks pause. NBC Nightly News was put off by the hefty price tag and the lack of signs of authenticity, such as a logo from As-Sahab, al Qaeda's video production house, which appears on the tapes al Qaeda releases to the public. "There was no way to verify them," says Robert Windrem, investigative producer for NBC Nightly News. "It was either you trust Keith Idema or you don't."

CNN backed off precisely because it decided Idema could not be trusted. This was after the network's national security analyst, Ken Robinson, searched Google and LexisNexis and discovered that Idema not only had a criminal record, but also liked to batter his rivals with lawsuits. In addition to turning down the tapes, the network decided to shun Idema as a source. It was the only network to do so.

On Jan. 17, CBS's 60 Minutes II ran a story about the tapes. Dan Rather traveled to Afghanistan to interview Idema and visit the dusty, bullet-scarred compound called Mir Bacha Kot, where the filming had been done. At a time when workers were still sifting through the gnarled wreckage of the World Trade Center, the story reinforced the prevailing sense of panic. Men in camouflaged tunics and ski masks were shown storming buildings, staging drive-by shootings, and laying siege to golf courses. Sometimes the men laughed as they rehearsed maneuvers, which Rather interpreted as evidence that they approached their grim mission with "glee." The footage also contained numerous exchanges in English, "a sign," Rather told viewers, "that they want to take scenes like this to the West."

ABC, MSNBC, NBC, and the BBC subsequently paid thousands of dollars to air the training-camp footage, according to Idema's bank records. These records, interviews with Idema's associates and Idema's own e-mails, suggest that money from media activities, including the tapes, helped fund his 2004 operations in Afghanistan.

Along the way, Idema gave varying accounts of how he got the tapes. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Eric Campbell that he bought them from one of his intelligence assets after a series of "back-alley meetings at midnight." In contrast, he told NBC's Today show that he and a group of Northern Alliance fighters "took over" Mir Bacha Kot, then went to the house of the camp's commander, where they found some of the tapes. They then hunted down "soldiers" (presumably al Qaeda recruits) to get the others.

Tracy-Paul Warrington, former deputy commander of a Special Forces counterterrorism team and a civilian intelligence analyst for the Defense Department, believes there's a good reason Idema's story changed. "In a nutshell, the videotapes are forgeries," he says. He explains that the tactics shown in the tapes (such as the way the trainees handle their weapons) were developed in the 1970s but abandoned shortly thereafter, and are not used by modern-day al Qaeda troops. Also, Warrington points out that the tapes depict mostly raids, whereas "al Qaeda almost exclusively uses bombs." Finally, Idema claimed in most accounts to have found the tapes around Mir Bacha Kot, an area that Warrington contends was already under coalition control and had been thoroughly searched by coalition forces. "This man who was convicted of fraud says he finds these tapes where nobody else found them," says Warrington. "That should have set some alarm bells off."

There are conflicting reports about the CIA's stance on the tapes. A retired senior special operations officer with nearly two decades of counterterrorism experience says that while he was on active duty he learned from a CIA contact that the agency had evaluated the tapes. "They did a voice analysis and a technical analysis," reports the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Not only were they staged, but you could single Idema's voice out directly." On the other hand, the CIA public affairs office says the agency "did not conduct voice analysis of the tape or draw any conclusion regarding its authenticity."

CBS employees received the tapes from Idema directly, and vetted them on the ground in Afghanistan at a time when the country was still in shambles and the network's Kabul bureau was operating out of a house with spotty phone service. The network's spokesperson, Kelli Edwards, says CBS nevertheless went to great lengths to ensure the tapes were authentic before airing them. This included "confirming with U.S. military officials that the camp in the video was, in fact, an al Qaeda training camp ... showing the tapes to three former British Special Forces officers, who verified the tactics being practiced in the video were consistent with those of al Qaeda, and to a top U.S. military official in Afghanistan who told us that, in his opinion, the video was authentic." The network says it can't reveal those officials' names because they offered their opinions on condition of anonymity.

Of all the networks, CBS had the longest-standing relationship with Idema. It had used him as a source or consultant on two projects before his arrival in Afghanistan. The first was the 1995 nuclear-smuggling story, called "The Worst Nightmare," which was produced by Scurka and aired on 60 Minutes.

Scurka had initially heard that Idema, who was then awaiting sentencing on fraud charges, had a lead on a hot story about the smuggling that he had picked up while operating his traveling exposition. Idema agreed to share information with Scurka. Scurka, meanwhile, lent a sympathetic ear to Idema's story about an injustice he felt he had suffered. Idema claimed the FBI had framed him on the fraud charges because he had refused to tell the agency where he learned about the nuclear smuggling, fearing leaks could hurt his sources.

The 60 Minutes piece, and a companion story in U.S. News & World Report, won that year's Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. Idema never got any credit, though. This came as a blow to Scurka, who has maintained Idema was a key source and that CBS decided to cut any reference to him largely because he was imprisoned for fraud by the time the story aired. Edwards, the CBS spokesperson, suggests Idema's contributions didn't necessarily merit credit, since the final story, which took six months to investigate, was "much different than the story we initially began pursuing."

After "The Worst Nightmare" aired, Scurka and Caraballo started work on a film about Idema, called Any Lesser Man, "the Real story of one lone Green Beret's private war against KGB Nuclear Smuggling, Soviet spies, Arab terrorists, and the FBI," according to promotional materials. Despite years of effort, they were never able to scrape together enough money to complete it.

In 2000, Idema hooked up with CBS again. This time he and Scurka served as consultants to 48 Hours, then anchored by Dan Rather. They worked on an investigative story about Colonel George Marecek, a highly decorated Special Forces officer accused of murdering his wife, Viparet. But the two were eventually fired from the project. "48 Hours determined they had taken on an advocacy role for the defense," explains Edwards of CBS. Indeed, Idema and Scurka had opened a "Free Marecek" office in Wilmington, North Carolina, where the trial was taking place, and one witness alleged that Idema and another man came to his house to harass him the night before he was slated to testify. Idema also told several associates he was detained for impersonating a police officer in an effort to get into a Detroit prison and convince a convicted serial killer to confess to Viparet's murder. Despite concerns about Idema and Scurka's objectivity, in December 2000, 48 Hours ran a story on Marecek, with much of the exculpatory evidence drawn from their research.

After being sacked by 48 Hours, Idema and Scurka launched a Web site called Point Blank Network News, or PBN, where they ran their own version of the Marecek story. The piece won a 2001 National Press Club award for online journalism. Despite the media attention, Marecek was convicted.

If the coverage of the Al Qaeda training camp tapes lent Idema credibility and renown, his old friend Robin Moore further lionized him by making him one of the lead characters of his blockbuster book, "The Hunt for Bin Laden," published by Random House

Moore, a seventy-nine-year-old with clear blue eyes and bushy eyebrows, wears houndstooth blazers and leans on an ivory-handled cane. Like Idema, he has long straddled the divide between the media and military camps. To get access for his first best-seller, "The Green Berets," he went through the grueling Special Forces qualification course, something no other civilian has ever done. He later covered the Vietnam War for Hearst Newspapers, and, because of his combat skills, was allowed to travel with operational detachments that were closed to other reporters. This meant he was sometimes forced to fight. On his living room wall Moore has hung a black-and-white photo of himself gripping the sagging body of a Vietnamese boy he had killed.

It was after seeing The Green Berets, a 1968 film based on Moore's book, that twelve-year-old Keith Idema decided he would join the Special Forces. But it wasn't until years later, when he was peddling special operations equipment, that he actually met Moore. Over time, a deep bond developed between the two men. "Robin is . . . not only my friend," Idema wrote Scurka while he was imprisoned on fraud charges. "He is my idol, almost my creator in a way."

Idema got involved in "The Hunt for Bin Laden" book project in July 2002, not long after returning to the United States. Moore said he asked Idema to help with the book because at the time he was one of the few people in the United States with up-to-date knowledge about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Idema, he says, was only supposed to help ensure the book's accuracy. But he soon started adding information.

According to Moore, Idema wrote only select sections of the book. Marianne Strong, the agent who represented Moore on "The Hunt for Bin Laden," tells a different story. "Jack wrote the book," she says. "Robin Moore started the book, but Robin Moore couldn't write the book, for a number of reasons" – among them a case of Parkinson's disease so advanced that he has difficulty signing his name. Idema, in fact, gets a credit line on the cover of the British version, and has filed a claim with the Library of Congress for sole copyright on it and on the American version. He also receives a portion of the royalties. A review of a manuscript draft of "The Hunt for Bin Laden" provided by Moore and dated June 1, 2002, just before Idema returned from his first trip to Afghanistan, suggests that the truth lies somewhere in between Strong's and Moore's accounts. Idema doesn't appear to have written the whole book, but the manuscript did change dramatically after he got involved.

"The Hunt for Bin Laden" was published on March 3, 2003, and within weeks it was number four on The New York Times bestseller list. To date, it has sold nearly 150,000 copies. The book portrays Idema, by turns, as a superhuman warrior, undercover spy, and rough-and-tumble cultural ambassador. He rescues injured children, removes bullets from "dozens" of Northern Alliance soldiers, and embarks on intelligence-gathering missions that the CIA shuns because they're too dangerous. Armed with a Russian assault rifle, he holds a band of hostage takers off for hours. He also uncovers a plot to assassinate former President Bill Clinton, nearly nabs Osama bin Laden, and captures a trove of documents detailing the al Qaeda leader's "terrorist plans."

Some of the heroic scenes don't match eyewitness accounts. This includes a detailed description of Idema rescuing his longtime friend Gary Scurka, who was hit by shrapnel in a Taliban artillery attack. The book describes Idema taking command of the chaotic situation, fixing the sloppy bandage applied by journalists Tim Friend and Kevin Sites, and whisking Scurka to safety. Others who were present – including Friend and a former Special Forces soldier, Greg Long – describe a different scene. They say Sites, Friend and Long applied a proper dressing. Friend, in fact, had worked as a surgical technician for six years. But when Idema arrived he ripped off the bandages and put on new ones, as the National Geographic cameraman recorded his every move. "It was only in retrospect that I realized he was acting for the camera," Friend says.

Moore had collaborated with Idema on several projects before "The Hunt for Bin Laden," and even secured an agent for a book, "Any Lesser Man," about Idema's life. He also contributed $2,500 to the film project of the same name. During that period, Moore, highly respected by Green Berets, started getting warning e-mails from members of the Special Forces community. "Mr. Idema is not near the man/hero that he is being made out to be," wrote retired Capt. William J. Adams in August 1999. "Lots of information provided by him doesn't wash according to eyewitness accounts and his demonstrated performance on active duty."

In the media push that followed the release of "The Hunt for Bin Laden," Idema became its spokesman. This period, which marked the crescendo of his career as a media personality, came during the run-up to the Iraq war, and in the dozens of interviews Idema fielded, he often doubled as an expert on the looming conflict.

Many of Idema's claims, such as the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, have since been discredited by the 9-11 Commission and UN weapons inspectors, but by billing him as a government official, the media lent them credence. NPR called him a "U.S. intelligence operative," while Northeast Public Radio dubbed him "the longest-serving Green Beret in the Afghanistan war." Others implied that Idema was working in an official capacity by saying he played an "integral" role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and that he fought "alongside" U.S. Special Forces, or by calling him as a "former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan."

As Idema was blazing a trail through the talk show circuit, Ed Artis, who felt that Idema's actions in Afghanistan had put his employees in danger, went on a fax and e-mail blitz to alert the media that there were questions about Idema's credibility. (Idema has since filed suit against Artis.) Several shows canceled interviews after receiving the warning, something Strong, the book's agent, resents. "'The Hunt' would have made it to number one if it weren't for that," she says.

Around the same time, Wayne Lawley, then the president of the Special Forces Association, a fraternal organization for past and present Green Berets, sent an e-mail to association members about the book saying: "The knowledgeable reader may be irritated by fiction used to fill in research and outrageous claims by Keith Adema [sic], one of the book's advisors." The message was far more measured than some of the replies it prompted. Idema "is doing all he can to besmirch the name of Special Forces, and all we stand for," wrote Billy Waugh, a former Green Beret and CIA operative, who has detailed his own experience in a 2004 book called "Hunting the Jackal." "This man has lied to the nth degree, and all for self-aggrandizement." Gradually, Moore came to see Idema in a similar light. "He wants to be the hero of every story," Moore says. "He tries to portray himself as a hero, even if he has to lie."

A series of events caused the shift in Moore's opinion. A "Hunt for Bin Laden" web site registered to Idema began advertising an upcoming Robin Moore book about Idema entitled "An Army of One." Moore said the site was unauthorized and that he never planned to write such a book. Idema also charged about $10,000 worth of books to Moore's account at Random House. Moore says Idema did this without his permission and that Idema also slipped the names and post office boxes of two groups into a list of charities that appear in the back of the British version of the book (because a percentage of the royalties were to be directed to these groups). One of the addresses was for U.S. Counter-Terrorist Group (Counterr), the umbrella organization for Idema's own Afghanistan operations. (At least one reader sent a donation to Counterr, according to Idema's bank records.) The other address was supposed to be for a charity that helped the families of killed or wounded Green Berets, but North Carolina's postal inspector determined that the post office box was actually controlled by Idema, and was investigating him for mail fraud before his Afghan arrest.

Moore eventually submitted a host of corrections that he wanted made to "The Hunt for Bin Laden," based largely on input from Special Forces contacts, but many were never incorporated. Carol Schneider, Random House's spokesperson, said the publisher made all changes that it received in time, but a number of them came after the deadline had passed. Then, in late October, Robin Moore gave Random House a proposal for a scathing second book on Idema, "Smoke and Mirrors: Jonathan Keith Idema and his Great Media Swindle," but Random House turned it down. "I'm not going to do this," Bob Loomis, vice president and executive editor for the publisher, said to Moore, as CJR's reporter sat listening over a speakerphone in Moore's living room. "It's too negative on Jack. It reflects badly on "The Hunt" because of his role in it."

Idema headed back to Afghanistan in mid-April 2004, accompanied by Caraballo, who would claim after their arrest that he was a journalist working on an independent documentary. But according to bank records, Idema was paying him.

Idema's lawyer, John Edwards Tiffany, says that by the end of April Idema had arrested his first prisoner, whom he turned over to U.S. officials on May 3. But two months later the man was released after the United States Central Command determined that he was not the high-ranking Taliban official Idema had claimed he was. The command began to investigate Idema, and shortly thereafter Wanted posters for Idema went up in Kabul. He and his cohorts nevertheless made a series of arrests in June, according to Tiffany. It wasn't until July 5 that Afghan police finally nabbed him, along with Caraballo, the former U.S. soldier Brent Bennett, and four Afghans who were working with them. At the time, the Abu Ghraib scandal was raging. Idema claimed he was working with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. government (something the Central Command and the State Department adamantly deny) and presented some evidence to support this claim during his trial. But none of it seems to point to definitive links to the Afghan or U.S. governments. Among the material is a video of meetings between Idema and two Afghan ministers. But both reportedly said they met with Idema to discuss his claims about the taxi-bomb plot only because they believed he was a member of the U.S. military. Tiffany also played tape-recorded conversations of Idema purportedly talking to officials in Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William G. Boykin's office. In one of the conversations, recorded after the Wanted posters for him went up, Idema threatens to give some unidentified material to the press. "Someone's got to do something within twelve hours or I'm going to e-mail this fucking thing to Dan Rather," he warns. "Do you think I would rot in prison if there's a problem?"

Most of the evidence, though, is one-directional communication, with Idema offering information or asking for assistance. There may be a reason for this: According to Bumback, and Idema's own e-mails, Idema had been trying desperately to secure a Pentagon contract, but hadn't been able to do so. Bumback says that's why Idema largely relied on the media to fund his operations. "Somebody had to replenish the till," he says. "Uncle Sam wasn't doing it."

Despite his problems, including a December shootout in his cell block, Idema continues to hatch ever-more creative schemes to ensure that history portrays him as a swashbuckling hero. From his jail cell he is telling associates that he plans lawsuits against Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News and the freelance journalist Stacy Sullivan, two reporters who have written investigative pieces about him since his arrest in Afghanistan. Idema made it clear in a recent letter to one of his attorneys (who was instructed in the letter to distribute it to other members of Idema's inner circle) that his goal was to influence future coverage. "Whatever we sue them for doesn't matter," he wrote. "It puts all the others on notice that 1) we will and can sue; 2) I still have fangs, and lawyers, even from an Afghan prison cell; 3) other people better check their stories ... ." Idema is also apparently trying to sway coverage by making reporters sign detailed contracts in order to get an interview with him. Tiffany, Idema's attorney, says at least one journalist has already done so. Idema wouldn't speak with cjr because the magazine refused to sign such an agreement.

Meanwhile, Idema is negotiating with an agent regarding a film about his exploits. And Strong, Moore's former agent, recently received a 12,000-word installment of Idema's book, which she said she has already discussed with dozens of publishers. Its working title: "Army of One."

Perhaps these developments explain the optimism pouring out of Idema's Afghan prison cell. "When Caesar crossed into Italy with his legion ... he said, 'let the dice fly high,'" he wrote in a recent letter. "Well, we did, and although we are down, I know I will prevail in the end."

Blog-gate

"The drama began when CBS posted forged National Guard documents on its Web site and, that same evening, an attentive 'Freeper' (a regular at the conservative FreeRepublic.com Internet site) named Buckhead raised suspicion of fraud. From there, intrepid bloggers Powerlineblog.com and Little Green Footballs, the Woodward and Bernstein of Rathergate, began to document the mounting signs of forgery." – Chris Weinkopf in The American Enterprise Online

"The yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took [CBS' 60 Minutes II] down. It was to me a great historical development in the history of politics in America. It was Agincourt." – Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal

"NOTE to old media scum ... We are just getting warmed up!" – "Rrrod," on FreeRepublic.com


Bloggers have claimed the attack on CBS News as their Boston Tea Party, a triumph of the democratic rabble over the lazy elites of the MSM (that's mainstream media to you). But on close examination the scene looks less like a victory for democracy than a case of mob rule. On Sept. 8, just weeks before the presidential election, 60 Minutes II ran a story about how George W. Bush got preferential treatment as he glided through his time in the Texas Air National Guard. The story was anchored on four memos that, it turns out, were of unknown origin. By the time you read this, the independent commission hired by the network to examine the affair may have released its report, and heads may be rolling. Dan Rather and company stand accused of undue haste, carelessness, excessive credulity, and, in some minds, partisanship, in what has become known as "Memogate."

But CBS' critics are guilty of many of the very same sins. First, much of the bloggers' vaunted fact-checking was seriously warped. Their driving assumptions were often drawn from flawed information or based on faulty logic. Personal attacks passed for analysis. Second, and worse, the reviled MSM often followed the bloggers' lead. As mainstream media critics of CBS piled on, rumors shaped the news and conventions of sourcing and skepticism fell by the wayside. Dan Rather is not alone on this one; respected journalists made mistakes all around.

Consider the memos in question. They were supposed to have been written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, now dead, who supervised Bush in the Guard. We know Killian's name was on them. We don't know whether the memos were forged, authentic, or some combination thereof. Indeed, they could be fake but accurate, as Killian's secretary, Marian Carr Knox, told CBS on Sept. 15. We don't know through what process they wound up in the possession of a former Guardsman, Bill Burkett, who gave them to the star CBS producer Mary Mapes. Who really wrote them? Theories abound: The Kerry campaign created the documents. CBS' source forged them. Karl Rove planted them. They were real. Some of them were real. They were recreations of real documents. The bottom line, which credible document examiners concede, is that copies cannot be authenticated either way with absolute certainty. The memos that were circulated online were digitized, scanned, faxed, and copied who knows how many times from an unknown original source. We know less about this story than we think we do, and less than we printed, broadcast, and posted.

Ultimately, we don't know enough to justify the conventional wisdom: that the documents were "apparently bogus" (as Howard Kurtz put it, reporting on Dan Rather's resignation) and that a major news network was an accomplice to political slander.

What efforts did CBS make to track down the original source? What warnings did CBS' own experts provide to "60 Minutes II" before air time? These are matters for the independent commission, headed by Lou Boccardi, former chief of the Associated Press, and Dick Thornburgh, the former U.S. attorney general. But meanwhile, the dangerous impatience in the way the rest of the press handled this journalistic tale bears examination, too.

"It Isn't Just Rush Limbaugh ..."

Three types of evidence were used to debate the documents' authenticity after Rather and "60 Minutes II" used them in the story. The first, typography, took many detours before winding up at inconclusive. The second, military terminology, is more telling but also not final. The third, the recollections of those involved, is most promising, but so far woefully underreported.

Haste explains the rapid spread of thinly supported theories and flawed critiques, which moved from partisan blogs to the nation's television sets. For example, the morning after CBS' Sept. 8 report, the conservative blog Little Green Footballs posted a do-it-yourself experiment that supposedly proved that the documents were produced on a computer. On Sept. 11, a self-proclaimed typography expert, Joseph Newcomer, copied the experiment, and posted the results on his personal Web site. Little Green Footballs delighted in the "authoritative and definitive" validation, and posted a link to Newcomer's report on Sept. 12. Two days later, Newcomer – who was "100 percent" certain that the memos were forged – figured high in a Washington Post report. The Post's mention of Newcomer came up that night on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, and on Sept. 15, he was a guest on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes.

Newcomer gave the press what it wanted: a definite answer. The problem is, his proof turns out to be far less than that. Newcomer's résumé – boasting a Ph.D. in computer science and a role in creating electronic typesetting – seemed impressive. His conclusions came out quickly, and were bold bordering on hyperbolic. The accompanying analysis was long and technical, discouraging close examination. Still, his method was simple to replicate, and the results were easy to understand:
Based on the fact that I was able, in less than five minutes ... to type in the text of the 01-August-1972 memo into Microsoft Word and get a document so close that you can hold my document in front of the 'authentic' document and see virtually no errors, I can assert without any doubt (as have many others) that this document is a modern forgery. Any other position is indefensible.
Red flags wave here, or should have. Newcomer begins with the presumption that the documents are forgeries, and as evidence submits that he can create a very similar document on his computer. This proves nothing – you could make a replica of almost any document using Word. Yet Newcomer's aggressive conclusion is based on this logical error.

Many of the typographic critiques were similarly flawed. Would-be gumshoes typed up documents on their computers and fooled around with the images in Photoshop until their creation matched the originals. Someone remembered something his ex-military uncle told him, others recalled the quirks of an IBM typewriter not seen for 20 years. There was little new evidence and lots of pure speculation. But the speculation framed the story for the working press.

The very first post attacking the memos – 19 minutes into the "60 Minutes II" program – was on the right-wing Web site FreeRepublic.com by an active Air Force officer, Paul Boley of Montgomery, Ala., who went by the handle "TankerKC." Nearly four hours later it was followed by postings from "Buckhead," whom the Los Angeles Times later identified as Harry MacDougald, a Republican lawyer in Atlanta. (MacDougald refused to tell the Times how he was able to mount a case against the documents so quickly.) Other blogs quickly picked up the charges. One of the story's top blogs, Rathergate.com, is registered to a firm run by Richard Viguerie, the legendary conservative fund-raiser. Some were fed by the conservative Media Research Center and by Creative Response Concepts, the same p.r. firm that promoted the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. CRC's executives bragged to PR Week that they helped legitimize the documents-are-fake story by supplying quotes from document experts as early as the day after the report, Sept. 9. The goal, said president Greg Mueller, was to create a buzz online while at the same time showing journalists "it isn't just Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge who are raising questions."

In order to understand "Memogate," you need to understand "Haileygate." David Hailey, a Ph.D. who teaches tech writing at Utah State University – not a professional document examiner, but a former Army illustrator – studied the CBS memos. His typographic analysis found that, contrary to widespread assumptions, the document may have been typed. (He points out, meanwhile, that because the documents are typed does not necessarily mean they are genuine.) Someone found a draft of his work on a publicly accessible university Web site, and it wound up on a conservative blog, Wizbang. The blog, citing "evidence" that it had misinterpreted, called Hailey a "liar, fraud, and charlatan." Soon Hailey's e-mail box was flooded. Anonymous callers demanded his dismissal.

Hailey is more restrained in his comments than other document examiners more widely quoted in the press. Of course, cautious voices tend to be quieter than confident ones.

Hailey wasn't the only one to feel the business end of a blog-mob. The head of one CBS affiliate said he received 5,000 e-mail complaints after the "60 Minutes II" story, only 300 of which were from his viewing area.

The specific points of contention about the memos are too numerous to go into here. One, the raised "th" character appearing in the documents, became emblematic of the scandal, as Internet analysts contended that typewriters at the time of the memo could not produce that character. But they could, in fact, according to multiple sources. Some of the CBS critics contend they couldn't produce the specific "th" seen in the CBS documents. But none other than Bobby Hodges, who was Col. Killian's Guard supervisor, thinks otherwise. He told CJR, "The typewriter can do that little 'th,' sure it can." He added, "I didn't think they were forged because of the typewriter, spacing, or signature. The only reason is because of the verbiage."

Hodges' doubts about the memo rest mainly on military terminology, and he has a list of 21 things wrong with the terms used in the CBS documents. He says he came up with the first 10 in a couple of minutes. For example, he points to the use of "OETR" instead of "OER" (for Officer Effectiveness Report), and the use of the word "billets" instead of "positions." This helped close the case for some, but probably shouldn't have. Even preliminary digging casts some doubt on the evidence. For example, Bill Burkett was quoted in a book published last March using the term "OER," suggesting he would've known better had he forged the documents as Hodges and others implied in interviews. And newspaper stories and Air Guard documents indicate that the term "billets" was indeed used in the Air Guard, at least in the mid-1980s. Such small points don't prove anything about the memos. But they do suggest that the press should never accept as gospel the first explanation that comes along.

The Double Standard

As Memogate progressed, certain talking points became conventional wisdom. Among them, that CBS' producer, Mary Mapes, was a liberal stooge; that her source, Bill Burkett, was a lefty moonbat with an ax to grind. Both surely wanted to nail a story that Bush got preferential treatment in the National Guard. Still, there was a double standard at work. Liberals and their fellow travelers were outed like witches in Salem, while Bush's defenders forged ahead, their affinities and possible motives largely unexamined.

The Killian memos seem to have grown out of battles that began long before last September. In early 2004, Burkett had featured prominently in a book, "Bush's War for Reelection," by the Texas journalist Jim Moore, who also co-wrote the Karl Rove biography "Bush's Brain." Bush's War for Reelection" included a story dating back to 1997, when Burkett worked as an adviser to the head of the Texas National Guard at Camp Mabry. In that role, Burkett says, he witnessed a plan to scrub George W. Bush's file of embarrassments.

When this came out, the press naturally turned to the people Burkett had named in Moore's book. And those men – Danny James, Joe Allbaugh, John Scribner, and George Conn – all dismissed Burkett's story. That's four against one, but not necessarily case closed. Most reporters omitted some basic, and relevant, biographic facts about Burkett's critics.

For example, Joe Allbaugh was usually identified in press accounts – in The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and USA Today, to name a few – as Bush's old chief of staff. He is much more. In 1999 Allbaugh, the self-described "heavy" of the Bush campaign, told The Washington Post, "There isn't anything more important than protecting [Bush] and the first lady." He was made head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Bush's victory, resigned in 2003, and went on to head New Bridge Strategies, a firm that helps corporations land contracts in Iraq.

Danny James, a Vietnam veteran and the son of "Chappie" James, America's first black four-star general, is also a political appointee whose fortunes rose with Bush's. He had his own reason to dislike Burkett. Burkett's 2002 lawsuit in a Texas district court against the Guard claimed that the staff of then adjutant-general James retaliated against him for refusing to falsify reports. It was dismissed, like other complaints against James and the Guard, not on the merits, but because under Texas law the courts considered such complaints internal military matters. Without further investigation, we are stuck at he said, she said.

Many of the people defending Bush in February on the scrubbing story appeared again in September, when the alleged Killian documents appeared on CBS. Other defenders appeared as well, and rarely were their connections to the Bush camp made clear, or the basis for their claims probed.

Other pieces of context might have been helpful, too. For example, Maurice Udell, the former commander of the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, in which Bush served, first came to Bush's defense in 2000 and was resurrected for the same cause in 2004. After Memogate he was a guest on "Hannity & Colmes" and was quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, saying the memos were "so totally false they were ridiculous." He also popped up in The Richmond Times-Dispatch and an Associated Press story. No one noted the cloudy circumstances of Udell's exit from the military (probably because the relevant clips are hard to find in electronic databases). In 1985, after an Air Force investigation into contract fraud, as well as misuse of base resources, Udell was ordered to resign. The initial probe included an allegation of illegal arms shipment to Honduras, but the charge came up dry.

Context was also lacking in quotes from Bush's old National Guard roommate, Dean Roome, who appeared with this old boss Udell on "Hannity & Colmes". With one exception, Roome's press appearances have served a singular purpose: praise the president, attack the memos. The exception was notable and often reprinted. Last February, USA Today used a quote from a 2002 interview with Roome: "Where George failed was to fulfill his obligation as a pilot. It was an irrational time in his life." Roome says the comment was taken out of context, and emphasizes how great it was to fly with Bush.

In his office, Roome had taped up a printout of a Sept. 16 Washington Times story in which the reporter asked Roome to speculate about who "the forger" was. Roome does not name Burkett but hints that it was he, without offering specifics. Roome also has a framed picture of President Bush signed, "to my friend Dean Roome, with best wishes." Another picture shows Roome and Bush on a couch. Roome says it's from this past March, when he attended a private party in Houston with Bush and about a dozen old friends. The meeting, Roome said, was a back-slapping affair, in which Bush told the group how he cherished his old friends from the Guard, Midland and Dallas.

When the central charge is a cover-up, as it was in the CBS story, vigilance is required. Thus, the connections between Bush's old associates should have seen print. Together the men formed a feedback loop, referring reporters to one another and promoting a version of events in which Bush's service is unquestionable, even exemplary. With such big names and old grudges in play, journalists are obliged to keep digging.

The Memogate melee peaked in late September. On cable, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC held forth with hasty overstatements: "I'm supposed to say 'allegedly forged.' I think everybody in America knows these documents were forged." His guests threw in anything that sounded good: "You know, Dan Rather's being called on the Internet, 'Queen of the Space Unicorns,'" said Bob Kohn, author of a book on why The New York Times "can no longer be trusted." (The "Space Unicorn" line had first appeared on Jim Treacher's conservative humor blog, and quickly wound up on The Wall Street Journal's online opinion page.)

Conclusions were often hidden within questions, no matter how little evidence supported them. NBC's Ann Curry, hosting the "Today" show, asked a guest, who had no way of knowing: "Was CBS a pawn in a dirty tricks effort by the Kerry campaign to smear ... President Bush? Can we go that far?"

No, we can't. But by the time Dan Rather announced on Nov. 23 that he would step down from the anchor spot in March 2005, the bloggers' perceptions had taken hold. For example, the Dec. 6 issue of Newsweek stated, incorrectly, that Rather had acknowledged that the "60 Minutes II" report "was based on false documents." The following week the magazine's "clarification" was limited to what Rather had said, not to what Newsweek or anyone else could have known about the documents.

Dan Rather trusted his producer; his producer trusted her source. And her source? Who knows. To many, Burkett destroyed his own credibility when he told Dan Rather that he had lied about the source of the Killian memos. Still, many suppositions about Burkett are based on standards that were not applied evenly across the board. In November and December the first entry for "Bill Burkett" in Google, the most popular reference tool of the 21st century, was on a blog called Fried Man. It classifies Burkett as a member of the "loony left," based on his Web posts. In these, Burkett says corporations will strip Iraq, obliquely compares Bush to Napoleon and "Adolf," and calls for the defense of constitutional principles. These supposedly damning rants, alluded to in USA Today, The Washington Post and elsewhere, are not really any loonier than an essay in Harper's or a conversation at a Democratic party gathering during the campaign. While Burkett doesn't like the president, many people in America share that opinion, and the sentiment doesn't make him a forger.

Jim Moore, who relied on Burkett for much of his book on Bush, says he initially called some of the generals who worked with Burkett to check his source's reputation – but didn't tell them what the story was about. They all said Burkett was honest and trustworthy. When Moore called them back, and described the accusations, only one of them, Danny James, then changed his opinion, calling Burkett a liar. George Conn, the ex-Guardsman who said he didn't remember Burkett's story of file-scrubbing, nevertheless told reporters Burkett was "honest and forthright."

Newsweek's Mike Isikoff has said that he interviewed Burkett last February and thought Burkett "sounded credible," but didn't use the Texan's story because he couldn't substantiate it. Good decision. CBS couldn't prove the authenticity of the documents in its story, and look at the results. Dan Rather has announced his resignation under a cloud and his aggressive news division is tarnished. And the coverage of Memogate effectively killed the story of Bush's Guard years. Those who kept asking questions found themselves counted among the journalistic fringe.

While 2004 brought many stories of greater public import than how George W. Bush spent the Vietnam War, the year brought few of greater consequence for the media than the coverage of Memogate. When the smoke cleared, mainstream journalism's authority was weakened. But it didn't have to be that way.

What About the Journalists?

Weekends spent alone at home, drinking to the point of unconsciousness. Romances that always seem to crumble after a couple of months. Feeling too paranoid to go to a movie or too agitated to sleep. This is a story about the invisible wounds that journalists often suffer when covering war. Anyone who has covered violence is aware of the psychic damage it can wreak — the guilt, the sense of being a parasite, the unbearable pettiness of daily life. The tribe of war correspondents is notoriously macho, and to even admit the damage — let alone surrender to it — has always been considered a sign of weakness. We are dispassionate chroniclers, after all, protected by the talisman of the notebook and the camera. The standard practice has been to go forth with a bottle of Scotch, absorb the pain and fear, and never tell your editors.

This denial has by no means disappeared, but the collective trauma of September 11 ushered post-traumatic stress disorder into the national lexicon, and it is beginning to usher therapists into the newsroom as well. The public and the medical community have a better understanding of trauma and its impact than they did just a decade ago, and the growing number of women on the battlefield — with their willingness to share their anguish — has made it easier for male colleagues to open up. With a new wave of emotionally scarred reporters coming out of Iraq (many of them relative rookies), editors are realizing that it will take more than flak jackets and “hostile environment training” to keep correspondents healthy. Among other things, they are introducing confidential hotlines for journalists who need help, and scrutinizing e-mail for signs of distress. “The wall of resistance is just coming down,” says Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist based in Michigan who works with traumatized journalists.

It’s about time.

Greg Marinovich, a freelance photographer, felt a deep sense of impotence as he witnessed a gruesome period of South Africa’s history in the early 1990s, when his daily routine involved taking pictures of people being shot or hacked to death. When he won a Pulitzer in 1991, he found it difficult to celebrate. The winning photos, taken for the AP, were of a mob savagely murdering a man. Marinovich had been unable to save the victim as he was dragged from a train in Soweto by five men who then beat and stoned him and stabbed him in the head before dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire. “I felt shock, repulsion, fear, excitement, dread — always the dread,” he says. “Now, having said that, there is the issue of enjoying, and being excited at, getting good photographs. So all these weird and disturbing thoughts, combined with the fact that we were earning money, added to the guilt — terrific guilt.”

During the same period, one of Marinovich’s best friends, Ken Oosterbroek, also a photographer, was shot dead in a crossfire just yards away from him in Tokoza township. Marinovich took a bullet in the chest in that incident and nearly died. He recovered, went back to work, and later buried two more colleagues who had committed suicide. Marinovich escaped the numbing trap of drugs and alcohol that ensnared many of the journalists he worked with, but he endured terrible spells of depression and, as he puts it, “destroyed some relationships.”

Science suggests that a terrifying experience alters the chemistry in the brain. The amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain that researchers believe is tied to memory, releases cascades of stress hormones such as adrenaline. Such hormones change the way the mind processes information during times of stress, lodging images like snapshots in the memory. This can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder, when vivid recollections return well after the event, evoking the initial horror. Classic signs include panic attacks, the avoidance of people or reminders of the incident, and flashbacks or nightmares.

These physical reactions compound psychological burdens such as guilt. Extreme stress can spawn other symptoms of distress, from insomnia to depression. Many mental health experts believe journalists should debrief as early as possible after the traumatic experience, so that disturbing thoughts don’t fester. This could be with colleagues at the hotel bar, or a couple of sessions with a therapist. The important thing is to process it. “It’s like carrying around a bowling ball if you don’t deal with it,” says Frank Smyth, the Washington, D.C., representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

He should know. Smyth was tormented by nightmares in 1991 after being held for two weeks in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison when he was covering the Kurdish rebellions that followed the first gulf war. While on assignment for CBS, Smyth drove straight into an ambush. For seventeen hours he hid in a ditch, listening as Iraqi soldiers executed a colleague who had been traveling with him. The soldiers eventually found Smyth and another colleague and locked them in a cellblock. There, Smyth had a prime view of guards torturing prisoners with electroshock and hitting them with wooden boards. Engraved in his memory was a boy named Jaffer, who yelped like a dog while guards beat him with a rubber hose. “He was so young his voice hadn’t yet cracked,” Smyth says.

After his release, Smyth says, going to sleep each night was “like a horror movie,” as the scenes replayed in dreams. Smyth eventually sought counseling and began to receive acupuncture treatments and practice yoga. The nightmares faded.

This does not mean that therapy will cure all. John Laurence, author of The Cat from Hue, a memoir about covering Vietnam for CBS, has sought help on and off since 1966, when he suffered his first combat stress. After Vietnam, Laurence, now sixty-four, covered fifteen more wars. Counseling helped him cope with the psychological costs of his career. He describes his old self as a “mess” — heavy drinking, sleeplessness, paranoia, dependence on tranquilizers. At his lowest points, he says, he would drop to the pavement at sharp noises. He was scared to leave his room, and had terrifying dreams of being trapped in a crashing cargo plane.

Still, he went to Iraq last year (for Esquire and National Public Radio) and the familiar demons of depression scuttled back. “I have never felt cured,” he says.

Photographers are among the most susceptible to PTSD, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002. Because photographers have to get close to capture their subjects, they must switch off their human instinct to help, and this can cause inner conflict. Mark Brayne, a former BBC correspondent who became a psychotherapist after experiencing his own anguish, hypothesizes that writers often cope better than photographers because they create a narrative. “When it has a beginning, a middle, and an end it can be put to bed,” he says. “But a photographer creates fragmented images, and the brain stores these fragments that cause distress.”

Corinne Dufka dealt with her distress by shutting down emotionally. Dufka, who has won nearly every major photography award for her macabre images of Africa, says she grew so desensitized that she began to lack feeling even for friends. She had an “epiphany” after the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998, when she agonized over missing the story rather than the fate of the victims. Dufka cried days later, when it dawned on her that real people had been blinded (her mother is blind). “I was ashamed about my lack of empathy and sense of humanity,” she recalls.

Soon thereafter, Dufka quit photojournalism to become a human-rights campaigner. (She won a MacArthur “genius” award last year for her activism in Sierra Leone.) These days she only takes snapshots of her five-year-old daughter, Eloise.

Experts note that trauma is often worse when violence is random and people are unprepared for it. In this respect, Iraq presents a dire scenario. There’s no relief from fear in Baghdad; reporters are living among a hostile population and bombs can explode anywhere. And since many reporters dispatched to Iraq have never covered conflict before, they have no practiced responses.

Steve Franklin, who has covered the Middle East for many years for the Chicago Tribune, was “stunned” by the anxiety permeating Baghdad when he was there earlier this year. “People were obsessed with security,” he says. “They had to have walkie-talkies, they sandbagged their houses. But they couldn’t tell the newspaper back home that they were too scared to leave the house.”

Adding to the reporters’ isolation was that many editors seemed ill-prepared to lend emotional support. “We ask people to cover these wars on the fly, but we’re not trained to ask ‘How do you feel now, after you almost got killed today?’” Franklin says. “In the macho environment, we ignore it. We can’t show fear.”

There are warning signs to watch for when a reporter returns from covering combat. A common one is intense loneliness. The journalists often feel they can only relate to colleagues who have been in similar situations. How do you convey to others the guilt of leaving a besieged city, as children pull at your sleeves begging to be saved?

Paul Holmes, one of Reuters’s top war reporters, found it hard to reconnect with his now ex-wife and three children in between stints in Bosnia. He was on edge and would snap at minor things. “You’re expected to reinsert yourself into normal urban existence and it’s extremely stressful for your family,” he explains. “You go home and there’s a problem because the local supermarket runs out of cornflakes and it just doesn’t seem important.”

Plenty of war correspondents still suffer in silence, but a growing number speak out. David Loyn, the BBC’s developing-world correspondent, took six months off conflict reporting after a harrowing time in Kosovo in 1998. He has told his bosses he doesn’t want to go to Iraq for now. He sees no shame in seeking professional help, which he did after witnessing the execution of an Afghan man who allegedly stole a BBC camera. “I was no good to anyone after that,” Loyn recalls. “Very jittery.”

Loyn matter-of-factly describes trauma therapy as a technical process, like vacuuming a carpet: “If an ordinary sentient human being is exposed to a lot of violence, then you need a cleaning.” He’s blessed with receptive employers who are pioneering trauma awareness for the media. Last year, the BBC added trauma instruction to its safety training, and supervisors are being told how to deal with troubled colleagues in the field and after they return. Several stars have “come out” about their experiences to assure more junior people that it’s okay to have stress disorder. Former correspondent Brayne, hired as a consultant, holds regular seminars in London on the topic.

Reuters has followed suit, with managerial training and a telephone helpline. Ironically, for a country where psychotherapy is more widely accepted than in England, American media lag behind. There are a few notable exceptions, though. Chris Cramer, the managing director of CNN International, is one of the press’s loudest advocates for trauma training. Cramer, who suffered paranoia for years after being held hostage in the Iranian embassy in London in 1980, encourages informal debriefings, some of which take place in his office. He will intervene, too, if he feels one of his journalists is not emotionally ready to return to the field. “This kind of a dialogue didn’t happen ten years ago,” Cramer says.

CNN also provides voluntary, confidential counseling to its staff, in person or on the phone. The New York Times offers similar services, and recently consulted with a military psychiatrist about ways to further soothe its correspondents in Iraq. NPR and Hearst Newspapers conducted trauma training sessions earlier this year. Since it opened in 1999, The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at the University of Washington (www.dartcenter.org) has aggressively tried to raise awareness of these issues.

The stigma, though, persists. Journalists who are suffering sometimes fear that they will destroy their careers if they ask for help. The staff at the Dart Center says there has been too little systemic progress in combating trauma within newsrooms. Often the bosses may be on board, but not the assignment editors, for example.

We will know only later how Iraq will affect reporters’ psyches, since often the damage bleeds out over time. For instance, in my own case, I put myself on autopilot when I was in Angola for a particularly rough six months in the early 1990s. I was nervous about a death threat, but distracted myself by working eighteen-hour days. When caught in sniper fire, I assumed a Zen-like state of denial. Landing at an airport that was being shelled, I busied myself with helping the wounded and collecting testimonies.

Months later, after leaving the country, I had disturbing dreams about limbless people whom I couldn’t save. I developed a phobia about roads that reminded me of an ambush. My catharsis came from writing a book about the war, which forced me to confront emotions. And, yes, I consulted a trauma expert.

Targeting Tehran

It's a misty October morning in suburban Virginia and three middle-aged women are hatching a subversive scheme – one that would land them in prison if they were ever to set foot in their home country, Iran, again.

They gather at George Mason University, a cluster of brick buildings skirted by meandering footpaths and thick oak and maple groves, then file into a soundproof recording studio and start flipping switches. Jila Kazerounian, a forty-seven-year-old computer analyst and the group's leader, hunkers down in one corner next to a mound of crumpled newspapers and gutted recording equipment, and grabs a mike. "Salam," she barks, "testing, testing, salam."

Nothing.

The project's technical director, Ramesh Rad, fumbles with the mixing-board knobs, sending shrieks of feedback through the room. When this doesn't work, she plugs and unplugs cords, and checks the settings on the audio-editing software. Finally, she and the others huddle around the computer monitor blinking and scratching their heads.

Eventually, Parvin, a forty-eight-year-old insurance-claim processor who asked that only her first name be used because she is concerned about the safety of her sister in Iran, suggests a plan B. Half an hour later, the group shuffles into her cramped home office. Parvin switches on her Hewlett Packard desktop and launches her digital-audio software. Leaning close to the mike embedded in her computer, she introduces Kazerounian, who pauses before launching her opening salvo.

"Allow me to first say hello to my fellow countrywomen," she says in Farsi, "the Iranian women who have been living under tyranny for the past twenty-five years."

The crew is recording the first half-hour program for their new radio station called Voice of Women. They intend to stream it over the Internet to a German company, which for $75 will broadcast it via short-wave into Iran on November 6. The station, which is ultimately slated to broadcast live for an hour each week, will feature news, talk, and a call-in segment, during which Iranian women can air their views.

The relative ease with which shoestring operations like Voice of Women can now reach Iran complicates the Islamic regime's struggle to control public opinion. The government has closed more than a hundred papers, many for questioning its policies. And the broadcast media, the most popular source of information among Iranian citizens, remain in the grip of the nation's spiritual and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "It's mostly propaganda," says Nati Toobian, who monitors Iranian television for the Middle East Media Research Institute, of official programming. "Even the government admits it's a tool of the regime." But the ruling clerics can't control what airs on the dozens of stations that expatriate groups in the United States and Europe have recently begun beaming into Iran.

Most credit Zia Atabay, a sixtysomething former rock star known as the "Tom Jones of Iran," with starting the trend. In March 2000 he launched National Iranian Television, a commercial station in Los Angeles aimed at his compatriots in the United States and Europe. Six months later, an NITV host, Ali Reza Meybodi, received a call from a man in the Iranian city of Isfahan during his live show. The man said he was receiving NITV's signal. Meybodi didn't believe him, so he jotted down the man's number and dialed him back. Sure enough, the man answered. Still doubtful, Meybodi grabbed a piece of fruit from a wooden tureen sitting on the nearby coffee table.

"What am I holding?" he asked. By this time Atabay and others had filtered into the makeshift studio.

"An apple," replied the caller.

Before long, everyone in the studio was weeping, and calls began pouring in from all over Iran. It turns out NITV reached Iran as the result of a technical snafu; someone at Eutelsat, the French satellite company, had flipped the wrong switch.

When he realized he could reach into Iranian living rooms, Atabay's programming turned political. He wasn't the first to beam dissent into Iran. Since the early 1980s, expats had been staging sporadic assaults on Iranian airwaves, mostly via short-wave, which regular Iranian radios receive. But after NITV's launch, with the cost of satellite airtime dropping and dishes sprouting from rooftops throughout the Middle East, Iranian exiles flocked to long-distance broadcasting.

As a result, Iranians can now tune into twenty-six television and twelve radio stations produced by expatriates, if they have the right equipment – and many do. There are 17 million radios in Iran, and an estimated 3 million to 4 million houses have satellite connections, in spite of the government's longstanding satellite ban.

Like Voice of Women, most of the radio stations focus on political and social issues. The majority feature weekly hourlong programs sponsored by a particular faction, be it the Communist Party of Iran or the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution. In fact, Voice of Women, which is sponsored by a fledgling nonprofit called Women's Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran, is the first Iranian expat radio station that isn't linked to a political party.

The television stations, in contrast, deliver round-the-clock programming, and only seven of the twenty-six focus on politics, while the others emphasize entertainment. Most of the political stations are run by monarchists who aim to enthrone Reza Pahlavi, the son of the American-backed shah who was deposed in the 1979 revolution that brought the current regime to power. While Atabay claims his station is neutral and independent, many people familiar with it say it has a clear monarchist bent.

There's been much speculation about where the stations get their funding. The television stations run advertising, but those with political leanings have trouble selling enough ads to cover their costs, which run upward of $1 million a year. Some suggest that the Central Intelligence Agency has served as their silent partner, but station owners insist this isn't so.

That doesn't mean the stations have escaped the attention of officialdom, either in Washington or Tehran. Last December, the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute launched a show on the Los Angeles-based station Radio Sedaye Iran, a move it hopes will help influence regime change in the Islamic Republic. Iran's President Mohammad Khatami, an embattled reformist, recently lent a deputy $400,000 to launch a satellite television station that will broadcast from London to Iran. Conservatives have blasted him for flouting the satellite ban and for blurring the boundaries between official stations and outside networks, which "sometimes go close to . . . harming national security and the moral health of society," according to the conservative paper Khorasan.

It's a bright morning in Woodland Hills, California, a leafy Los Angeles suburb filled with sprawling office parks. Kevin Jamshidi, a reporter and producer, is bounding through the atrium of NITV's studios – 18,000 square feet of clean lines with splashes of primary color – when the phone rings and he snaps up the receiver. Tomorrow the world will mark the third anniversary of September 11, and the caller, an NITV reporter, is on the steps of the U.S. embassy in Brussels where 350 candle-toting Iranian exiles have clustered to commemorate the 2001 attacks. Later, they plan to march on their home country's embassy.

When the call comes, a live talk show is on air, which in the world of Iranian expat television means a well-coifed man in a tailored suit sitting alone on a soundstage musing about politics, history, or Persian culture. Jamshidi orders the control room to break into the program, and the caller's voice is soon crackling over a speakerphone on the host's desk. "Down with the Islamic Republic," chants the crowd in the background. "Down with the Taliban, either in Kabul or in Tehran."

For Iranian dissidents, commemorating September 11, 2001, is also a way of lashing out at Tehran and its fiercely anti-American rhetoric. Partly as an act of protest, Atabay went on the air just after the attacks and urged Iran's residents to hold a candlelight vigil. Some six thousand heeded his call, and many landed behind bars as a result.

Next up on NITV is the news. Like many who work at the expat-run stations, the lead anchor, Noureddin Sabet Imani, an earnest-looking man dressed in a crisp suit and wire-rimmed glasses, started his journalism career in prerevolutionary Iran, where he worked in state-run television. He delivers the international news with an air of cultivated neutrality. The Iran report, which comes at the end of the program, is another story, however. The correspondent, who calls in live from Paris for the segment, blends fact with opinion. Today, for instance, he tells of a student in the city of Hammadan who died after being tossed out a dormitory window. No one knows who did it, but the correspondent notes, "When these things happen in Iran, it's usually the work of the Revolutionary Guard."

The caller is one of a handful of paid reporters NITV has scattered around Europe and the Middle East, according to Atabay. Many reports, however, flow from anonymous eyewitnesses who call from the scenes of unfolding events – including those that official media aren't covering. It was eyewitnesses who called on August 15 to say that a sixteen-year-old girl convicted of "acts incompatible with chastity" had been hanged in the northern city of Neka. The incident didn't make headlines in the United States or Europe until August 24; expat broadcasters had reported it within hours.

Some station owners worry that airing such reports could make them targets. Atabay has been known to hire armed bodyguards, and the station's studios are outfitted with fingerprint scanners, motion detectors, and cameras that he can monitor over the Internet from anywhere in the world. Local police have also been notified that the building is a potential trouble spot. "They know to come right away," Atabay explains, "so they don't have to bring the yellow bags."

While the Iranian government hasn't directly attacked any U.S. broadcasters, it has attacked their signals. NITV was kicked off its original satellite, Hot Bird 5 over France, because Tehran kept jamming it. NITV and the other political stations eventually migrated to Telstar 12, which sits above the middle of the Atlantic Ocean – too far away to jam from Iran.

But even Telstar 12 isn't entirely safe. For the last five years, Iranian dissidents have commemorated the student protests that wracked Iran for six days in 1999. Around the 2003 anniversary, students flooded Iran's streets once again. Jittery clerics closed universities, banned public gatherings, and announced that they had jailed more than four thousand agitators. But their efforts to preempt protest were initially scuttled, in part by expatriate broadcasters who urged people to take to the streets. That is, until Telstar 12 came under attack. The satellite was jammed from Cuba, and many Iranians believe Havana was simply doing Tehran's bidding.

Why would those who had poured into the streets demanding democratic reforms ally themselves with the mostly monarchist stations? After all, Iranians were subject to censorship, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and assassination under the shah, as they are under the current regime. Kazerounian suggests it's an alliance born of desperation. "They're just so fed up," she says. "They'll come out to the streets no matter who calls them." She isn't sure if anyone outside Iran should be pushing protest, though. "How can we call on them to risk their lives when we're sitting here in our safe homes?" she asks. "It has to be an indigenous voice calling for transformation."

Rather than incite unrest, Kazerounian's aim is to ensure that Iranian women – who have been flogged, raped, and stoned to death by the government – don't suffer in silence. She wants them to phone and fax in their stories, so she can call attention to their plight, both inside and outside Iran.

Back inside Parvin's office, soft afternoon light is filtering through the sheer curtains. Kazerounian leans toward the computer, a yellow pad tucked in her lap. She doesn't need her notes anymore. The words are just pouring out of her.

Finally, her pace slows. It's clear by her tone she is wrapping up. "The heavy weight of the struggle against the regime is on the shoulders of the women in Iran," she says. "For those of us in exile, our responsibility is to connect with you and ensure your voice is being heard around the world."

Tribal Warfare in America

In the fall of 1974, in Kanawha County, W. Va., Christian fundamentalists enraged at the imposition of "blasphemous" textbooks in the public schools demolished a wing of a school board building with fifteen sticks of dynamite. When the board insisted on keeping the books in the curriculum, homes were bombed and school buses shot at. "Jesus Wouldn't Have Read Them," read one of the slogans of a movement whose leader, a preacher, would soon face charges of conspiracy to bomb two elementary schools.

Into this whirlwind stepped Paul Cowan, a shaggy-haired, bespectacled, left-wing New York Jew, trying to make sense of why he felt sympathy for the side that was laying the dynamite.

For people like Cowan, a 34-year-old staff writer at The Village Voice, it was a boon time for existential drift. In 1970 he published "The Making of an Un-American," the memoir of a raw and arrogant new-left punk who had taken a one-year leave from the Voice in 1966 for a stint in the Peace Corps that was supposed to be broadening, but ended up being wildly disillusioning. "When I read that the Viet Cong had attacked the American embassy in Saigon during the Tet offensive," Cowan concluded in Un-American, "I was almost able to imagine that I was a member of the raiding party." But by the time Cowan began his next project, in 1971, life inside the new left had become an emotional burden for him: diminishing returns, dashed certitudes, "intellectual claustrophobia." That was how, "gradually, half-consciously, without any theory or any plan, I decided to cross the sound barrier of dogma and test my beliefs against the realities of American life." The twelve chapters of "The Tribes of America" (1979) were the felicitous result.

A person of Cowan's inclinations and background was supposed to know exactly what to think about a howling mob gathered around a crucifix-emblazoned flag and expectorating demands to burn books of the sort the reporter would want his kids to study, books with chapters by Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and test questions asking students to interpret rather than parrot what they had read. It would have been easy to record the scenes of bonfires and leave it at that; certainly that would have satisfied Cowan's readers back in Greenwich Village. Instead, Cowan took the riskier step: wondering whether these criminals didn't also have a point.

The people responsible for the textbooks were bureaucrats who wrote blithely of pedagogy's power to "induce changes ... in the behavior of the 'culturally lost' of Appalachia," and identified teachers as state-designated "change agents" and schools as "the experimental center, and the core of this design." Nowadays the arrogance of this formulation is as grating to us as a chalkboard screech. Not then. It was an era when the language of universally applicable liberal enlightenment flew trippingly off cosmopolitan tongues. Which was why it came as such a shock when the "culturally lost" proved to have ideas of their own – that their culture had inherent dignity and value, and that textbooks suggesting that Christian revelation was on a par with Greek myth were, as protesters put it, "moral genocide."

It took a keen eye and an open mind to recognize that the cosmopolitans were pursuing a form of class warfare. Cowan noticed how urban and suburban professionals in Kanawha County – "Hillers," in local parlance – spoke nervously in private of how familiarity with names like Mailer and Baldwin would get their precious darlings into Harvard and keep them out of West Virginia Tech. The Hillers weren't about to risk having their upward climb impeded by the "Creekers," poor residents in the hollows who wanted "to protest corruption," as one suburbanite told Cowan, but didn't "even know how to spell that word." But some Creekers were motivated by similar dreams of upward mobility. Their version of it was just incompatible with the Hillers' impositions – like the kid who told Cowan "he wanted to go to West Virginia Tech, to be an engineer," and he felt he needed "a good basic education" to do it.

Dynamite wasn't the answer. But neither was a kind of cultural imperialism indifferent to the fact that 81 percent of the district opposed the textbooks. It was, in a word, complicated. Certainly more complicated than the portraits other journalists were creating for sneering consumption back home: death threats, double-barreled shotguns, Onward Christian Soldiers. The futile last stand of yokels against the inevitable march of progress.

It was at a time when, certainly to the left, local cultures were of keenest interest as obstacles federal judges eradicated in order to deliver social justice. But what Paul Cowan understood long before anyone else was that there was a new kind of story to tell about such conflicts: that attempts to "coax people into the melting pot" had costs as well as benefits, and campaigns to replace "our periods with your question marks," as one Creeker put it with aphoristic intelligence, must not simply be imposed by fiat. Cowan understood how "often, people I might once have written off as reactionaries were fighting to preserve their culture and their psychological and physical turf," and that this new argument over the meaning of democracy was defining the next frontier of political conflict itself. That America had tribes, and that sometimes – often – they would come to blows.

We call those fights the "culture wars" now, and we have a more richly variegated vocabulary to describe the Hillers and the Creekers: red state and blue state. Redneck and yuppie. New Class and white working class. "Evangelical" and "liberal." We describe our nation's dueling dreads over such concepts with a casualness that once marked cocktail party chatter about the inevitability of consensus liberalism. Writing in the 1970s, however, Cowan had no such clichés to lean on. He had to figure it out for himself. He did so brilliantly – eyes open, with a courage I can scarcely believe. He traveled all over the country: to Boston during the busing wars; to Forest Hills, Queens, where he was shocked at the racism of immigrant Jews fighting the construction of a low-income housing project; to the southernmost border of the United States, where the sacrifices Mexicans were making to preserve their families looked like anarchy to the Americans patrolling the border with shotguns. Cowan's reporting from these places left him "with a profound respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life: of customs I'd once regarded as old-fashioned and bourgeois." His travels also found him realizing that "those same longings, translated into political terms, have produced the vicious fights I've witnessed for the past seven years and recorded in this book." His agonized sensitivity to battlefields then barely emergent makes for one of the most remarkable books I have ever read by any journalist.

It was courage that allowed him to achieve it, though courage of a certain sort. Paul Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind, and how many of us dare to do that? In the deeply humanizing portrait of illegal aliens, he notes how "I'd always included braceros" – Mexicans who traveled back and forth on legally sanctioned work contracts – "in my private litany of the oppressed." Instead, he found "they talked nostalgically, not bitterly, about their adventures" north of the border. He calls the chapter "Still the Promised Land" – a self-reproach to someone who once proudly called himself an "Un-American." In a profile of Jesse Jackson, he encounters a man on the verge of apostasy from the left: Jackson, who was then deeply opposed to abortion, was the keynoter at the 1978 meeting of the Republican National Committee. Cowan sat and listened, relegating his own voice to the background. That quiet and reflective voice may account for a mystery regarding Cowan, whom I had never heard of at all when I encountered this book by accident last year. Flashier contemporaries went on to greater fame. Cowan's willingness to play down his own ego – indeed, to mock his own ego – accounts for some of his obscurity.

The more famous names often seemed more macho; there is something about the male journalist and the trope of physical courage. Though Cowan was no chicken. Covering a nationwide transportation strike, he thumbs a ride with a trucker through Ohio where strike supporters are shooting scabs from overpasses. But then comes the characteristic Cowan move: the introduction of a discordant image. He describes a group of college students goofing around in a truck stop's game room, himself "oddly envious, as they chatted cozily about the plays they planned to see during a weekend in New York." He would rather be with them. It is a meditation on a deeper meaning of courage. What journalist, reporting a story, forcing yourself on strangers, attempting to convince yourself that you have something worth saying about a world not your own, hasn't felt the desire to be somewhere else – anywhere else? And what, really, is more difficult: admitting that to yourself (and the world: Cowan wrote of his "fear that I'll appear a fool"), or placing yourself in the way of a "dangerous" situation that renders moot the question of whether what you're doing is worth writing about? The latter course is a way to banish the real fear. Sometimes you realize, reading The Tribes of America, that physical courage and psychic courage are inversely proportional.

The book is not just a collection of published articles. Cowan revised and extended the articles by revisiting the places where he'd reported them. You want scary? Imagine catching up with the people you originally thought you'd turned into heroes with your stories, and who you now know think you've sold them out.

In 1974 Cowan was among the onslaught of outsiders – students, politicians, scribblers, filmmakers – who descended on Harlan County, Kentucky, to chronicle a coal miners' strike. He arrived bearing fantasies. The locale was legendary: "Bloody Harlan," site of the Depression-era strike that inspired the song "Which Side Are You On?" "Some of the journalists I admired most – Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and John Dos Passos – had been part of a committee that investigated working conditions in Harlan in 1931," Cowan explained. They had left as heroes, or so he thought. Why couldn't he? He overlooked the arrogance of some of those earlier reformers, who had distributed copies of the Daily Worker to miners and then stood by as those very possessors of the Daily Worker were removed to jails in remote hamlets reachable only by mule. In Harlan, Cowan partnered with a young miner with leadership ambitions, Jerry Johnson, who seemed more cosmopolitan than all the rest: "I began to fantasize that we were a latter-day version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, pledged to cleanse the mining town of its heritage of corruption." Sure, some of Jerry's values were different, such as his devotion to the land and his traditional marriage. His motivations were different, too. Jerry was moved less by abstractions of justice than by a passion to recover the folkways of his ancestors' Appalachia, before it was commandeered by the greedy overlords of coal. Cowan, the left-wing universalist, emphasized their commonality and romanticized the differences. "I began to think of them as the lost tribe of the working class," he wrote of the miners – arrogating himself, dangerously, a role as their anthropologist.

It couldn't end well.

Jerry hated the story that was meant to lionize him and ended up hating its author, too – who Jerry thought had rendered Harlan's traditionalism in the Voice as titillating local color incidental to the political struggle, when to many in Harlan their traditions as they understood them were the point of the political struggle. Only upon returning did Cowan realize that these friendly people "felt a smoldering resentment toward outsiders" – even, or especially, outsiders who parachuted in and styled themselves as saviors. He had made a terrible botch of things. "Harlan County: The Power and the Shame," he titled this chapter. Part of that shame, he suggested, was his own. He had "indicated a set of commitments – and an unquestioning acceptance of Jerry's view of the strike – that my articles didn't really reflect."

That, he says, "helped me distill the argument that was the genesis of this book": that the passions of reformers can sometimes betray a contempt for the common sense of ordinary people, leading in turn to a dangerous narcissism that could transform someone like him into a close kin of those arrogant school bureaucrats in West Virginia.

Cowan reckoned with that danger most explicitly in his book's concluding chapter. In 1972 "the urban journalistic and political elite" – a tribe in its own right – had flooded another parochial locale, the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where Richard Nixon's Justice Department had staged a politically motivated conspiracy trial designed to neutralize the bands of Catholic radicals trying to end the war in Vietnam by disrupting the draft system. Cowan's tribe came with "visions of jurors lifted from the pages of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street." So did the tribe of John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general, whose Justice Department was counting on these terrified Silent Majoritarians to sentence the defendants to an eternity underneath the jail.

Well, the yokels saw that the government's case was patently absurd, so the yokels had no trouble acquitting. "How stupid did those people in Washington think we were?" one juror later asked Cowan.

That was how Cowan ended the book. The Harrisburg experience, he concludes, "left me feeling that my attitudes toward that group of Americans (like the attitudes of most lawyers, reporters, and defendants – members of the urban elite who were connected to the case) were just as narrow and parochial as their attitudes toward us." He vowed to do better.

By the time I read that, around Christmas in 2003, I had an aching question I wanted to ask Paul Cowan. I wanted to know what had become of him ideologically. After all, in the mid-1970s, other writers were also raising criticisms about the urban journalistic and political elite and their self-serving condescension toward "heartland" people and their values. These writers were also discovering a newfound "respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life." They recognized the habits of a former radicalism as a set of blinds, just as Cowan had, and embraced what Cowan called "the more primal part of oneself" and the conviction – as Cowan wrote – that "cultures aren't clay that you can sculpt to your liking." These writers called themselves neoconservatives. Had Paul Cowan become one of them?

I couldn't ask him that question; he died of cancer in 1988. So I called Paul's widow, Rachel, his frequent companion in many of these chapters. What Rachel Cowan told me was that her husband was just as proud to write from the left at the end as he was at the beginning. He continued to work for The Village Voice; one of his last big stories was a profile of the victims of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, also in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Politically, the answer made sense to me. It shows in Paul Cowan's ultimate judgments – for example that the border guards whom he also deeply humanized in his portrait of illegal aliens, otherwise decent men and professionals, ultimately suffered from a racist inability to recognize the full humanity of the "wets" they hunted. It shows in his conclusion to the West Virginia chapter, in which he faces a moment of truth with the Creekers' charismatic leader: he has to grant her point that "maybe there is no school system that can provide for your kids and mine," but concludes, "I would like to think there is room for fundamentalists in my America. But I'm not sure there is room for me in theirs."

The answer also made sense to me as someone on the hunt for good writing. His ability to probe where those he disagreed with were coming from while still understanding why he disagreed with them – he knows which side he's on – was a token of his moral seriousness and his comfort with moral complexity. He was equally allergic to moral relativism as to moral dogma, which is exactly what made him a great journalist. I came to this realization while thinking of another book published in 1979. It was written by a bad journalist, who in his previous book had proved himself to me a very a good one. That previous book was called "Making It," and its descriptions of subterranean social forces that no one had described before – in this case those shaping the New York literary world – were in their way as astonishing as the journalism in Cowan's The Tribes of America. But Norman Podhoretz's next book, "Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir," one of the most famous and influential books of neoconservatism, was a very lame one. Podhoretz told "the whole story of how and why I went from being a liberal to being a radical and then finally to being an enemy of radicalism in all its forms and varieties." Podhoretz had picked the wrong side. So he rejected it root and branch, right down to its core principle: social solidarity: "The politics of interest," Republican-style: that, he wrote, was "the only antidote to the plague" of sixties radicalism.

You can agree or disagree with the politics. I think it's hard to disagree that Podhoretz became a much worse writer, much less skilled at describing the world. In Making It, self-examination was the taproot of social observation. In Breaking Ranks – and his subsequent work – Podhoretz recognized only demons that existed outside himself. The left left him; he always stayed the same. Podhoretz claimed a courage – he called it moral courage – that was inversely proportional to his actual courage, which was sorely lacking. For perhaps it wasn't the left that was dogmatic, but himself – and dogmatists make terrible journalists.

Paul Cowan took a different course, and that is the meaning of his work. He looked inside himself. He found sins – his own sins, not the sins of some abstraction called "the left," to be rejected as such – and he reckoned with them. Which is hard work. He tested his prejudices against reality, about as deeply as anyone could test them; he embraced new principles, cleaving to the ones worth keeping. He saw virtues in bourgeois virtue. But that didn't paralyze his conscience. He saw that America had tribes, and that the left-leaning Ivy League professionalism he inhabited was one of them, with its own characteristic inanities. That wasn't the end of the story for Cowan, but rather a new, richer beginning.

Baghdad Diary

Editor's Note: In August CJR asked Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent, to keep a journal of her life in Iraq, where she had been since before the war, and where reporters were finding it difficult to do their job. In September, just after she sent us her report, Fassihi sent an e-mail to friends and relatives — something she does regularly. Usually, she says, these e-mails are chatty, but this one reflected her observations on an ominous sea-change: “The genie of terrorism, chaos, and mayhem has been unleashed . . . as a result of American mistakes.” Within days her private note had popped up on the Internet and circulated far and wide, even making an appearance in Doonesbury. She became Exhibit A in the perennial discussion about the link between the published work and private opinions of reporters. Below is a full slice of Fassihi’s reality in Baghdad, and it raises a question: How could she work there and not have an opinion?

Tuesday, Aug. 17

The chartered Royal Jordanian aircraft, the only civilian flight to Iraq, nose-dives down onto the Baghdad airport runway in spiraling corkscrew turns. The force of gravity pulls me forward from my seat and I nervously clutch the armrests. It feels like a prolonged crash. I gaze out the window at the dusty horizon lined with palm trees as the plane rocks to forty-five-degree angles right and left. Airplanes can’t land here without these evasive maneuvers, because rockets and mortars are fired at them every day. It’s hard to believe that until only four months ago we could still travel to Iraq by car.

My team of driver and translator, Munaf and Haaqi, wait for me at the nearest U.S. military checkpoint to drive me to Baghdad. The highway from the airport to the center of town is short, but one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq. Insurgents hide in the date farms and attack military convoys with rocket-propelled grenades. I sit in our recently purchased armored car and feel relatively safe. I remind Munaf to stay in the center of the road to avoid hitting one of the landmines. A few minutes later, we find ourselves driving directly behind a convoy of American Humvees and tanks. I panic. The Americans could get attacked at any moment and we don’t want to be caught in the crossfire. “Hang back, hang back,” I tell Munaf. He slows down but the cars behind us don’t want to pass, either. “I can’t stop because the Americans will get suspicious and shoot,” Munaf says. In Iraq, no one wants to drive near the Americans.

Wednesday, Aug. 18

I spend all day at the convention center inside the heavily fortified American compound where most official activities take place. Getting there was risky today, because the roads leading to the checkpoint are shut down and we had to walk about a mile. All the security guards checking our press passes are wearing helmets. One of them says, “A mortar hit right here this morning,” and points to a bunker several feet away. I walk even faster. I’m trying to catch the last leg of Iraq’s political conference, a four-day marathon of meetings, dealings, and debates to hash out the selection of a hundred-seat national assembly. It is quite something to see all these people gathered in one place and freely voicing their opinions. There are Shiite clerics clad in sweeping robes and turbans, women candidates in skirt suits and high heels or the black head-to-toe hijab, Kurds in traditional baggy pants and fringy head wraps, and Western-educated technocrats in suits and ties. I spot the former interior minister, Samir Sumaida, and have tea with him. He is critical of the conference’s shortcomings but is quick to list its benefits as well. “There’s been a lot of manipulation and open cheating here, but despite all this we have a body far more representative than ever before,” he says. “This is what democracy is all about, these are the first steps and we are learning.” A loud boom interrupts our chat. The building shakes and we all run for cover. An American soldier is screaming, “Mortars! Get away from the windows!”

Sunday, Aug. 22

Our house, which we share with Newsweek, has been transformed into a fortress. To get to it, you have to pass several roadblocks and checkpoints and negotiate a labyrinth of forty-foot concrete blast walls that surround the compound. Security has been beefed up; we have more guards at the gate and one on the roof. Sometimes it feels like living in a luxurious prison. I already miss walking. On my last trip home, I spent seven hours walking around Manhattan on my first day back just because I could. Security and administrative work takes up most of my time these past few days. I read through the security reports e-mailed to us every day and discuss with the Iraqi staff new measures to make sure everyone is safe. We have to register our armored car and the paperwork lacks appropriate border stamps. I can’t get hold of the Jordanian driver who brought the car in, and don’t want to send it back to the border, but the police keep stopping us at checkpoints around town threatening to confiscate the car. Last night as Haaqi pleaded with a cop to give us back the car documents, I sat debating whether I should risk standing at a police checkpoint — a common target of attacks — or take a chance on losing the manifest. In Iraq, we are often security experts first, administrators second, and reporters third. I interview an imam in a mosque today and I politely decline his request to turn my cell phone off. I can’t afford to be out of touch with the bureau and my colleagues in case there is an emergency, I explain. Sure enough, half an hour later my phone rings. It’s the check-after-a-boom call from my boyfriend, Babak Dehghanpisheh of Newsweek. “You OK? Come back home soon, there was an explosion somewhere,” he says. We have several conversations of this nature each day. In Iraq there is this constant anxiety over life and death.

Monday, Aug. 23

The Najaf crisis is escalating and I want to find a way to go there. My friend Ivan Watson, a reporter with NPR, sent an e-mail from Najaf today saying the road from Baghdad was “terrifying.” He lay down in the back seat for the entire three-hour drive, hiding under a sheet and heaps of plastic bags. They passed an aid convoy, including an ambulance that had been ambushed minutes before and was burning. Two photographer friends are stuck in the Imam Ali shrine right now with Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia, because they can’t walk back through the sniper alleys and into the no-man’s land of the old city. A French photographer friend got shot in the leg by a sniper as she ran for cover. And worst of all, Georges Malbrunot, a French reporter for Le Figaro newspaper, has disappeared on the road to Najaf.

Babak and I discuss the possibility of a trip to Najaf, but both our Iraqi teams refuse to go. “They’ll kidnap you and kill us,” my driver Munaf says. He read in the newspaper today that an Italian journalist was kidnapped in Najaf and the dead body of his driver was discovered in his car.

In search of a way to write about Najaf from Baghdad, I go to the two main Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods to do man-in-the-street interviews, clad in a scarf and long robe. In Khathemiya I am able to walk around the streets and corner passersby for a chat. In Adamiya, a Sunni enclave where most of the population is anti-American, I have to be more discreet. We drive around for some time until we find a crowded bookshop. Haaqi goes inside for a few minutes to take its pulse and determines that it is safe enough. Inside, the bookseller chats away, praising the brave Mujahedin of Falluja and calling it “a nationalistic resistance,” while dismissing the Sadr militia as opportunists who are politically motivated. I stand close to the counter, practically whispering in English to Haaqi and holding my notebook out of sight below the counter as I take quick notes.

Friday, Aug. 27

I am in Najaf. There is a tense calm in the city today after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani arrived yesterday and brokered a peace deal between Sadr’s militia and the Iraqi government, and, in effect, the Americans. Analysts are saying that, after many weeks of fighting, the crisis in Najaf was resolved by a frail cleric.

The drive from Baghdad to Najaf is only three hours but it took us a day to get here, with a night spent in Karbala. Babak and I took elaborate measures to disguise ourselves as locals. Despite the 130-degree heat and blazing sun, I didn’t wear my sunglasses and threw on two thick layers of a black head-to-toe hijab, and then stared ahead without looking out the window, like a proper conservative Muslim woman. We left behind U.S. passports, press cards, driver’s licenses, and any other document that could identify us as Americans. I even carry around fake press cards that say “International Journal Newspaper,” with a picture of me in a scarf. We instruct our nervous driver and translator that if we are stopped on the way, they must say we are an Iranian couple visiting from Tehran on our way to Karbala. Each of us carries a small Koran in our bags.

On the way, the Iraqi police waved us through the checkpoints. Our problems began ten miles before Najaf. The road was blocked and the Iraqi police were going nuts, firing openly into the traffic. In this country, you don’t know whom to trust and often nobody is your friend; the police checkpoint could easily be insurgents dressed as cops. But then we noticed a unit of Iraqi national guard scattered around the fields next to the highway and wondered if the militia had brought the fight to the highway. We had no way of knowing. Then gunfire broke all around us and we ducked. It’s amazing how quickly a seemingly calm situation can turn around here.

Friday, Sept. 10

A friend who drove through the Shiite slum of Sadr City tells me that young men are openly placing improvised explosive devices into the ground there. They melt a shallow hole in the asphalt, place the explosive, cover it with dirt, and put an old tire or plastic can over it to signal to the locals to give it wide berth. He says that on the main roads of Sadr City, there were a dozen landmines every ten yards. Behind the walls sat angry Iraqis ready to detonate them as soon as an American convoy got near.

I have wanted to go to Sadr City to see why the truce between Sadr’s militia and the Americans isn’t being honored, but am too afraid to just go. So I send my driver and translator to check it out first, secure an interview with Sadr’s representative, and then come back and get me. A simple interview here can take hours to arrange. Half an hour later Haaqi calls. He is out of breath and sounds terrified. “We are at the main square in Sadr City, there was an American tank in front of us, and this young guy ran toward it with an RPG on his shoulder and attacked it,” he yells into the phone. “The tank blew up in front of us, it’s on fire, the body of the soldier flew in the air, and then the other soldiers started shooting into the crowd and at our cars.” I tell him to turn the car around immediately and come back home. Sadr City, home to 10 percent of Iraq’s population, is quickly being added to our list of “no-go zones” — off limits to the Iraqi government and the American military, and out of the reach of journalists.

I miss my mobility and being able to just get in the car and go. It’s hard to believe that only six months ago I could take a trip to Najaf, Samarra or Tikrit on a moment’s notice. It seems ludicrous that last December I was making daily trips to Samarra to write a feature about its local soccer team. Now it’s no-go. I remember eating kebabs in downtown Falluja last October and then paying a visit to one of the tribal sheikhs deep in the groves of Al Anbar province. I’d get my head cut off if I attempted that trip today.

Sunday, Sept. 12

I am going around to various political parties to discuss how they are preparing for the coming elections. So far, the Shiites are far more active than the Sunnis. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, a Shiite party with close ties to Iran, has organized community meetings and training sessions for pollsters. Another group, Hezbeh Wafaq Islami, invited me to attend its campaign lecture after Friday prayers at a mosque in the town of Abu Ghraib, but I can’t go. Abu Ghraib is dicey for foreigners. I send Haaqi, my translator, and give him a list of questions, a tape recorder, and a brief reporting lesson about paying attention to detail and color. More and more, we are all relying on our local staffs to do the street reporting and go to places we can’t. This is also true for photographers. There is only a handful of Western shooters left in Baghdad. The freelance crowd is thinning out, too. It’s impossible to work here without the infrastructure and backing of a media organization to give you the basics: a secure location, guards, local staff you know and trust, satellite phones, flak jackets, and so on. A reporter can’t just parachute into Iraq anymore.

Tuesday, Sept. 14

The insurgents have brought the war to downtown Baghdad. For the fourth day in a row Haifa Street, a strip of old houses and Soviet-style apartment blocks, is a battleground between Americans and rebels. A few days ago, I watched Mazen, an Arab colleague with Al Arabiya news channel, get shot by an American helicopter as he was doing a live stand-up on Haifa Street. He died on television as I sipped my morning coffee. I ask Babak if he thought we’d need therapy after we were done with this place. “Probably,” he replies. My translator Haaqi can’t concentrate because his parents live on Haifa Street and are under a dusk-to-dawn curfew and fear leaving their home. He can’t go visit them either. This morning a massive car bomb exploded near police headquarters, killing forty-seven and injuring more than a hundred people. I go to a nearby hospital where the emergency room is overwhelmed and patients are piled in the hallways. Later today I go to see Sabah Khadem, a senior adviser to the interior ministry. He tells me the insurgency is spreading, getting more organized, and that the various groups are beginning to cooperate. I call the ministry of health for a count of casualties in the past four days. The numbers are astounding: 110 dead and more than 300 injured in Baghdad alone. In four days. So that’s the story I’m writing.

Sunday, Sept. 19

I am getting stir crazy from being in the house too much. I go to see my Iraqi Christian friends, a lovely family I befriended when I visited Iraq before the war. Mary Rose, a gregarious fifty-something, hugs me tightly and bursts into tears as soon as I walk in. “I was hoping you had left,” she says, adding that since the two Italian women were kidnapped from their home last week, in broad daylight, she can’t sleep for worrying about me. Sabah Nasser, an engineer, looks pale because he’s developed a heart condition worrying about his two sons returning home safe every day. They are missing church services for the first time in their lives because of the attacks against Christians.

Wednesday, Sept. 22

I am on the phone in my room when the force of the explosion throws me off the chair. The boom is so massive that I think the house will collapse. All the windows facing the garden shatter. Bricks fall out of the walls and some of the doors buckle. We are under mortar attack, I think, and run for the door. It turns out that a car bomb has exploded less than fifty yards away from one of the security checkpoints on our street. It was aimed at an American military convoy driving by on the main street. From the windows we can see thick black smoke and blazing red flames. Burnt, twisted pieces of metal, parts of the Humvee and the car, have flown over our walls and landed in our garden. Our neighbor’s children are injured, with bad cuts from the broken glass. We later learn the explosion killed an American soldier and three Iraqi men passing by in their cars. It took a day for wailing relatives to pull their remains out of one burnt car. It is a miracle that no one from our house was hurt. In the middle of all this, the phone rings and it is my editor, Bill Spindle, from New York, asking me to check e-mail for readback on a front-page story. I stand there half scared, half in a daze and at loss of words. There I am clad in a flak jacket and helmet standing in the middle of the living room with broken glass all around, clutching my emergency bag — money, passport, a satellite phone — and here is my editor, millions of miles away from this mess, asking me to simply do my job. “I can’t right now, I’m, ah, in the middle of a situation, a car bomb near the house, all okay, will call later.” And I hang up. It will be two more days (we had to evacuate the house) before I finally step into my reporting shoes again and check for that readback.

Thursday, Sept. 30

I’ve been at the hotel for a week now. It’s the fifth or sixth time I’ve moved in Baghdad in the past sixteen months in search of a safe place. This is very disruptive for work. The hotel is probably not 100 percent safe either, but I feel safer here, perhaps because I think the odds still work in my favor in a hotel packed with journalists. And all my friends, with whom I’ve bonded from war zone to war zone over the past three years, are staying here, and every night after filing we get together to have dinner, a drink, or a talk. Today has been grim. A car bomb aimed at an American military convoy has killed 34 children. I rush to the Yarmulk Hospital, where most of the injured are taken. After covering war in Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, and Iraq, I have seen my share of misery. But there is something about children hurt in terrorism attacks that is hard to shake. There aren’t enough beds in the emergency room for all the injured children and the floor is flooded with blood. Every time the doctor pronounces one of them dead a parent drops to the floor and wails in a piercing cry. We drive back from the hospital in silence. I’m leaving in two days after a seven-week stint. Our rotations, like those of other media organizations, are usually six to eight weeks in and then three to four out. Babak is already out and he calls every day, begging me to leave. I stayed behind an extra week to wrap up my election story, and then got caught up with deteriorating security and the house evacuation, to say nothing of the turmoil caused by a private e-mail that became very public. As glad as I am to get a vacation, there’s always this bit of guilt. I am leaving behind our staff and our Iraqi friends.

God is My Co-Author

Okay, maybe the sound of prayer issuing from a journalist’s mouth is not so bizarre — what reporter on deadline hasn’t beseeched a higher power? But this was different: in a bland khaki-colored room deep in the bowels of the Empire State Building, fifteen aspiring journalists sat in front of their laptops with their heads bowed. “Thank you, Lord, for loving journalism,” intoned the morning’s instructor, an AP reporter who would soon give a lesson on constructing leads. “Thank you, Lord, for cherishing words, for loving good, clear writing.”

They were all evangelical college students taking part in a month-long summer seminar of the World Journalism Institute, a J-school with a mission to prepare young evangelicals to enter the mainstream media universe.

The students, here in New York from as far away as Lookout Mountain, Georgia (population: 1,581) and schools like Vision Bible College in Marsing, Idaho, are mostly in their early twenties, clean cut, earnest, and deeply religious. They laugh at the notion that they are a cadre of religious zealots being trained to infiltrate the newsroom and violate the sacred doctrine of dispassionate, objective journalism. Yet the students themselves aren’t entirely clear just how the journalistic and spiritual parts of their identity fit together. Are they evangelical journalists, or just journalists who happen to be evangelicals?

Robert Case II, who directs the program, has his own answers to these questions. A former philosophy teacher at Central Washington University, in 1997 he was on the board of God’s World Publications, a publisher of evangelical newsletters and books, and helped conceive of, as he puts it, “a boot camp for aspiring journalists of faith.” The institute opened in 1999, and the next year Case moved from Washington State to Asheville, North Carolina, to run it.

Case is a charismatic man with a football player’s neck and gray hair closely buzzed, and was dressed, the two times I saw him, in red, white, and blue suspenders and shiny black and white wing-tips. He doesn’t come off as particularly fanatical, and his initial objective for the institute does not sound radical.

He thinks evangelicals have closed themselves into what he calls a “ghetto” of their own making. They have fled mainstream culture rather than engage it. But if evangelicals expect to be depicted fairly and fully by the elite media, Case says, they need to get their hands dirty and play a role in the institutions that define the larger culture. This doesn’t mean he wants journalism to be done differently. He just wants enough evangelicals to be at places like The New York Times and The Washington Post so that reporters begin to see them as living, breathing people and not backward bible-thumpers.

“The homosexuals are our role model in this,” Case says. “They had the same problems we do twenty, twenty-five years ago — a despised minority hiding in the closet, and all the stories in the media looked to point out their weaknesses. They overcame this by integrating into the mainstream.”

Case’s other, longer-term objective is, by his own admission, more controversial. It is to bring “an evangelical or biblical perspective to the newsroom.” Case thinks that evangelicals, seeing the world as they do through the ethical and moral lens of religion, could make much-needed adjustments to journalism’s focus. The institute was not necessary fifty years ago, he says, when “Judeo-Christian values were regnant in America and something like Roe v. Wade would never have become an issue.” But now that we live in a “postmodern, post-Christian world,” Case says, newsrooms are once again in need of a moral compass. He doesn’t want to dismantle the principles of good journalism, which, he says, are “eternal.” He doesn’t want to evangelize. He just wants the “religious aspect of life” to be articulated in stories, and for issues like abortion or gay marriage to be framed in a way that allows for more than just a secular perspective. It boils down to this: “Most of the elite media are tone deaf to religious concerns,” Case says. “They just don’t see the value to any issue that has a flavor of religion. A secularist will always ignore the religious side of life and way of thinking. Evangelicals won’t.”

Case insists that his vision doesn’t involve trampling on journalistic objectivity. And the content of his courses reinforces this. The two times I visited the seminar I saw standard J-school instruction, all nut graphs and inverted pyramids. I heard no talk of using journalism as a tool for evangelical propaganda.

But once I spoke with the students, it became clear that the divide — between the imperatives of their faith and those of their chosen profession — was much blurrier for them than Case’s vision assumes. One afternoon, over a lunch of bologna slices on hamburger buns with ketchup, four students told me how journalism was a “calling” for them. As Adam Belz, a blond twenty-year-old who attends Covenant College in Georgia, put it, “God is the originator of reality, so knowledge of him is knowledge of reality. If I look to God as the source of truth, that helps me in my profession.”

All acknowledged similar motivations for choosing journalism. But they also insisted that, more than anything else, it was the love of writing that had made them want to be reporters. And then I asked what they would do when, in the course of their reporting, they met someone who was impoverished or hungry or in mourning. Would they be able to keep from bringing Christ to this person? This was a tough one. They debated for a few minutes. But the conclusion was unanimous. “All the teachers tell us to not mix faith and work, not to use your position to tell everyone about Christ,” said Lauren Jones, twenty, a journalism major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But if we care about people, have a burden in our heart for them, we cannot hold in truth which is within us.”

Belz jumped in: “If salvation and heaven and hell are at stake,” he said, “it’s going to be necessary for me to say something.”

Case would not be happy to hear his students sounding like missionaries. Earlier this year, Jack Kelley, the disgraced USA Today reporter, brought some unwanted attention to the World Journalism Institute that made its mission look more fanatical than Case would like it to appear. Kelley, a Pulitzer finalist in 2002 for coverage of international terrorism, was arguably the highest-profile evangelical journalist in the country. “I feel God’s pleasure when I write and report,” Kelley was quoted as saying in the May 2001 issue of Connection Magazine, an evangelical publication. “It isn’t because of the glory, but because God has called me to proclaim truth.” He was slated to speak at a luncheon during the summer seminar this year. But when his editors at USA Today discovered that he had fabricated more than a dozen stories during the past ten years, Case told Kelley he could still speak if he used the occasion to explain his misdeeds. Kelley declined and Case removed him from the list of speakers. In the meantime, through the magic of Google, many bloggers looking for information on Kelley found their way to the institute’s Web site and its mission statement, written six years ago by Case.

The sprawling, angry statement, peppered with biblical citations gave the impression, Case now says, “that we wanted to create a theocracy in the newsroom.” A typical line: “There was a time when the major newspapers of this country reflected the truth of God’s existence. But because we Christians did not fight for God in the newsrooms, these cultural institutions went the way of the flesh.”

Case says he is “ashamed” of the mission statement’s militant tone. It cost him a few of his instructors and guest speakers, whose connection to the institute, and thus the mission statement, circulated on the Internet. People like David Cho at The Washington Post, Rod Dreher at The Dallas Morning News, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty at NPR. Many wanted nothing to do with WJI anymore, Case says. Some just wanted their names removed from the public list. Case immediately replaced the mission statement with a more benign version that he now says should have been there all along.

But this raises the question: What kind of journalists does Robert Case really want to produce? Evangelical crusaders or quality reporters indistinguishable from any other? There is one man Case raises up as a shining example for his students to emulate: John McCandlish Phillips. To younger journalists, Phillips’s name might not ring a bell, but for the eighteen years he worked as a reporter for The New York Times, from 1955 to 1973, he was considered one of its very best writers. Gay Talese, who was at the Times during the same period, has said of him, “There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”

He also was, and still is, a devout evangelical who kept a Bible on his desk at the Times “as a statement of who I was and what I believed,” he says. He doesn’t like the term Christian journalist. He sees himself rather as a journalist who happens to be Christian. “You are not out on a campaign for a conversion of souls; you are out on a very direct campaign to get information for an organ of public knowledge,” Phillips told me.

His work at the Times was distinguished by a fine, almost sensual attention to detail that was the envy of other journalists. He wrote features that depicted ordinary people with the richness of Technicolor — a Brooklyn high-school principal who was also a ragtime piano player, a homeless man and his social life at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and, famously, a Jewish boy from Queens who became an American Nazi and a Ku Klux Klansman. But in the newsroom, Phillips largely kept his distance from fellow reporters, staying clear of the gambling and heavy drinking that engaged some of his colleagues after work. He says it’s an “absurdity” to think there should be any contradiction between being both an evangelical and a professional journalist. “I found them rather well coordinated,” he says.

His belief played a role in his work only insofar as it provided him with God as a “helper” as he searched out facts. “Exercising faith in a living being who cares is not an exercise in futility,” Phillips says. “God simply is with those who repose their trust in him. I was given advantages in reporting all the time that I could not have had apart from a living trust in the living God. I would go to a news scene. There would be fourteen other reporters. It would be a confusing scene, hard to know your way through it, who was who. Again and again and again, I would come back with more story than other reporters. Yes, I was acutely alert, but I was also given advantages.”

Phillips teaches at the institute for free, as opposed to the $250 an hour most instructors receive. He doesn’t talk to students about theology. Rather, he tells them what books to read, tries to inspire them about the newspaper life, challenges them to be keen observers of the world — advice one could imagine hearing from any legendary journalist.

Phillips typifies the first half of Case’s vision, a gifted reporter sustained by his relationship with God. Ultimately, though, the kind of journalist the institute strives to produce might be found somewhere between the staid model Phillips presents and the religious idealism of the students. First, endeavor to be extraordinary journalists, Case insists to his charges. Then, he tells them, you will have earned the right to bring your evangelical perspective into the newsroom, and offer an alternative to the godless and cynical atmosphere that he and most evangelicals believe predominates in the press.

Mothers at War

Like most mothers, Jennifer Griffin had a checklist when picking a preschool for her daughter in Jerusalem. The Fox News correspondent wanted a disciplined environment. She preferred English-speaking teachers. Most important, she sought a safe location beyond the reach of suicide bombers. Griffin looked at one school that was popular with expatriates, but wasn't pleased that the playground faced the street. She ruled out another where a bomber's head had rolled into the yard. Eventually, she settled on a school whose classrooms seemed securely set back from the road. But then a young man blew himself up nearby. "After that, I lobbied to have an armed guard placed at the entrance," she says. "The parents chip in and pay for him."

Mothers who cover wars go to agonizing lengths to balance child-rearing and work. It's tough enough for any woman to juggle career and babies, but add snipers and kidnappers into the mix and a tricky situation suddenly becomes one of life and death. Female war correspondents readily admit that it goes against all maternal instincts to place the most precious thing in their lives in danger. They find it wrenching to leave their children for weeks while they cover the front lines. But as women swell the ranks of senior correspondents, a growing cadre – nearly all in their forties – are choosing not to relinquish high-profile careers just because they have kids.

War reporting, with its masculine cachet, shatters the ultimate glass ceiling for female correspondents. You prove yourself as tough as the guys. Writing stories that could save lives can be the most compelling experience of a career. Yet the primal tie to a child can present an excruciating pull in the opposite direction. I know this dilemma well. For twenty years I bounced around the world in often nasty places, never questioning if an editor called me at 3:00 a.m. and said, "Get to Rwanda." I spent so many months away from home when I covered forty-seven countries in Africa that the man who is now my husband would have to fly to Angola or Ethiopia for a rendezvous. However, this daredevil lifestyle ended after our son, Anton, was born. When he was just ten days old, I found myself rejecting a prestigious job that would have taken me to Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. I gazed down at Anton, as he slurped tranquilly at my breast, and thought, "I can't abandon this defenseless tiny person. I waited so long to have him. How could I do anything that might leave him motherless?"

In the days of Martha Gellhorn or the Vietnam War, the tiny sorority of female war reporters were generally childless. Those trailblazers often sought to out-macho the men, and giving birth wasn't compatible with their lifestyle. Even a decade ago in Bosnia, Sheila MacVicar (now of CBS News) stood out as the rare mother in the war pack. But that's changed, with more husbands willing to stay at home and an erosion of prejudice against women on battlefields. For this piece, I canvassed nearly a dozen mothers who have covered war for British and American media in places like Burundi, Chechnya, and Iraq. "What happens with all of us is that we were doing this for several years and then we had babies and it's hard to give it up," says Barbara Demick, whose son was an infant when she covered the second Palestinian intifada for the Los Angeles Times . "Just because you're a mother doesn't mean you lose your interests."

Some of these mothers raise families in conflict areas such as Israel. Others spend long months on the road to cover distant wars, and experience the anxieties of separation or possible death. It isn't as if these women don't have other attractive options, such as Paris or Washington. Some feel guilty about their unconventional choice. "Every time I pack my bags for a trip and every time I drive to the airport to fly away from Sylvia [five years old] I feel completely miserable," says Robyn Dixon, the Johannesburg correspondent of the Los Angeles Times . "And every time I step over the threshold of a plane into the hull I feel that shiver of fate, and pray that everything will be okay."

One of the most unbearable incidents occurred last summer, when Sylvia sobbed hysterically at the door, "Don't go! Don't go!" as Dixon left for Iraq. "I was crying too, and I had to just walk away, my heart tearing apart," she says. At the same time, Dixon and others describe a sense of mission that comes with covering war. A few women have grown hooked on the adrenaline rush of danger. Others hunger for the front-page stories that Baghdad promises. They worry they would be bored with a more ordinary life. Nearly all say they take reasonable precautions.

The war correspondent-mother faces issues her male colleagues can avoid. For starters, those who breastfeed often must wean their babies earlier than they like. Ask anyone who has pumped milk to imagine doing it in a jeep, or without clean water at hand. One correspondent for a major American newspaper learned the hard way on assignment in Chechnya, when she contracted a painful case of mastitis after her breasts grew engorged. Another suffered leaking breasts in a Palestinian town, when roadblocks kept her from getting home in time to nurse. "It was agony," she recalls. "I was tempted to pick up the first baby I saw and plant it on my breasts."

Aside from nursing, other work adjustments must be made, as the most famous female war correspondent of our generation recounts. CNN's Christiane Amanpour says she has a greater awareness of danger since the birth of her son, John, four years ago. She still goes to hot spots, though. After September 11, she spent about three months covering the Afghan war and has since done stints in Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. But she has changed the way she works. "I take more care with personal safety since I feel I have a whole new responsibility with a young child who depends on me," she says.

Most of the women would agree that, after peril, their biggest concern is separation. Assignments in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example, typically last at least three weeks, if not several months. It can take a month just to get into Chechnya, and becoming trapped there for weeks is a distinct possibility. Israel, in a way, seems to offer the best setup for mothers who cover wars. They can breakfast with the kids, go to Gaza to cover news, and get home in time for dinner. Even then, careful planning is needed. Fox News's Jennifer Griffin and her husband, Greg Myre of The New York Times, try not to be in a dangerous place, like Nablus, on the same day. "The juxtaposition can be a little surreal," Griffin says. "Sometimes I will be in the West Bank sitting across from some masked gunman. I will say, 'Hold on just a second, I have to make sure that my husband will pick up my daughter from preschool at one o'clock.'"

Logistics were equally complicated for Catherine Bond, forty-three, when she headed CNN's Nairobi bureau. Her son was tiny as she covered Africa's toughest spots: Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, both Congos, Ethiopia, Eritrea. Bond's husband, an aid worker, frequently traveled to Sudan, so they tried to ensure that both were not away simultaneously for more than one night. Bond and her cameraman perfected the art of keeping trips to no more than ten days, and once she took her toddler and nanny along to Uganda. Bond installed the pair in a comfortable hotel suite while she went out to report.

The common wisdom in war correspondent circles is that given stability and a loving home – a good nanny is essential – the kids will turn out all right. Preschoolers can remain clueless about their environment and don't ponder why mommy leaves the house with a flak jacket. Still, some say it's challenging to remain involved with their children while on the road. Satellite telephones allow daily chats, but sometimes children who resent the separation refuse to take calls. Decompressing after a trip can be tough, too, as parents readjust from survival mode to the prosaic. After the intensity of life and death, changing diapers can seem tedious. Cynde Strand, supervising editor on CNN's international desk, who was formerly based in Johannesburg, says she can easily shift gears by playing with her five-year-old, Luke. But dealing with the local Moms and Tots group after one particularly hairy assignment was another matter. "All the moms were talking about how well their kids were doing on the merry-go-round of activities," she recalls. "I started talking about the massacre site I had just filmed a few days ago in Ivory Coast and how I had to put cigarette butts up my nose to keep the stench from making me vomit. Hmmm."

Griffin tries hard to cocoon her daughters. But despite her best efforts, the real world intrudes. The elder daughter asked why her best friend suddenly left the country (the war). And a bomb exploded at the Moment Café down the street from their house. "I had to stay calm enough so that she didn't feel fear," Griffin recalls. Paradoxically, Griffin maintains that raising children is precisely what keeps her sane after a hard day filming violence. "The birthing process affirms life," she says. "I've found my sanity in the young innocent faces of my children." Another upside is the impact on writing. Several mothers said they were better reporters now, with sharpened insight into human suffering. They say some of their best work has been about mothers wandering the streets calling for their dead children, or toddlers who witnessed their parents' executions. "I have taken many incredible pictures of women and children in war and in hunger that made an impact on world opinion," says CNN's Strand, "but I never really saw those pictures until I had a child of my own."

Those who do give up the road can feel frustrated. I did. When two hundred people were massacred in Uganda recently, Bond's first reaction was that she had to get on a plane. "Then I thought, 'You can't. You're breastfeeding and the other child has a cold.'"

Demick, too, feels ambivalent watching Iraq from the sidelines. Now based in Seoul, she was torn between yearning to go to Baghdad and feeling that she should stay home with Nicholas, now four. As a single parent, she was aware that the boy would be orphaned if she were killed, so she held back from volunteering. But what happens if war breaks out with North Korea? Demick pauses, briefly. "I've thought quite a bit about that," she says. "You have to make a choice." A friend or the nanny would whisk Nicholas to Australia, or to Manhattan where Demick's mother lives. His passport is always handy. But Demick would remain behind, to cover the story.

Hype Takes a Hit

You've seen the stories: lethal germs on your doorknob, secrets of child abductors, what your nail salon operator won't tell you, sleeping through smoke alarms, the deadly mold in your house, cell phones and cancer, or, yikes! your thong and your mental health.

Such stories show up like the seasons on local TV news -- but only during the months of February, May, July, and November, the so-called sweeps periods, during which Nielsen Media Research measures the audiences of TV stations and cable systems in all 210 markets across the U.S. The idea is to schedule shock-and-awe stories during those four months to boost ratings for those periods and thus raise advertising rates and profits. Everybody, inside the industry and out, knows that this system is a fraud: advertisers are cheated, and the public is either frightened out of its wits by alarmist, hair-raising news features, or inured to real news, or both. "It's a horrible way to do our business," says Forrest Carr, news director of WFLA in Tampa, Florida. "Completely artificial. Cheap ratings ploys, sensationalism, turning handsprings during those four months." Many Americans are fear-ridden, according to Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, in his book The Culture of Fear. He cites evidence that news media are both the cause of people's fears and the reason they're convinced those fears are valid.

But don't despair! Help has arrived. Nielsen is rolling out a new process for measuring local TV audiences that will abolish sweeps periods in the markets where it is used. Boston has had it since January 2002. Before the year is out Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York will have signed on. The other top ten cities in the U.S. -- Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and Dallas-Ft. Worth -- will get it during the next few years.

The secret weapon? A streamlined iteration of the People Meter that provides instantaneous, continuous ratings and demographics -- every single day all year round, instead of just four months of the year. Think of it. Stations will have an avalanche of tabulated, overnight data not only on how many people watch their news programs, but also who: men 18-39, women with incomes of $40,000-$60,000, folks who prefer oatmeal to cornflakes, religious fundamentalists. That's high-priority information for advertisers and for TV news directors trying to shape their newscasts to attract the most desirable (and the most) viewers. ("Advertisers who want to reach left-handed Lithuanian Lutherans will be able to do so," jokes Jon Currie, a Los Angeles-based consultant to TV stations.) That is crucially important because local news broadcasts are by far a station's biggest source of revenue. So: goodbye sweeps stunts, hello sanity in the newsroom. Things are looking up, right?

But wait. Two flies swim in that ointment. Stations, in their competitive zeal, may now be tempted to stunt 365 days a year instead of just in sweeps periods, making local TV news a lot sillier and more angst-ridden than ever. That's possible but not likely; it would exhaust news staffs, and cost too much. Second: Nielsen has no immediate plans to expand local People Meter service beyond the top ten cities, which account for only 30 percent of U.S. households. That means that 70 percent of all homes will still get the same old fear mongering during four months of the year. CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox will continue to bloat their affiliates' ratings with extravaganzas in sweeps months: Oscars, Grammys, drama show cliffhangers, finales of reality shows, docudramas ripped from the headlines (Jessica Lynch, Elizabeth Smart), bigfoot celeb interviews (Monica, Barbra, Britney) on the primetime newsmagazines, and lesbian kisses, à la Ally McBeal. (A few Hispanic and African-American groups fear that local People Meters will under-report viewing by minorities, and thus eventually reduce the number of shows reflecting their interests. Nielsen insists that minorities will be counted more accurately, not less.)

In Boston, which pioneered the new system, TV news is stunt-free. "It's been beneficial," says Paul La Camera, president and general manager of WCVB, the ABC affiliate. "It's a much more rational way to run a news operation. We spread our intensity now across the entire year."

He can't remember, La Camera says, when his station last broadcast a news story about salad bars that kill.

Neil Hickey is CJR's editor at large.

Across the Great Divide of Class

In the Jan. 19 issue of The New Yorker, Karl Rove told the writer Ken Auletta that President Bush thinks the press is "elitist," that "the social and economic backgrounds of most reporters have nothing in common with those of most Americans." For decades now, the political Right has made considerable hay out of the liberal elite bogeyman, and such a sentiment from Bush might be dismissed as mere culture-war blather. But class, which is what the president really means, will play a role in the coming election: tax cuts, unemployment, corporate greed, health care, the echo of John Edwards’s "two Americas."

And Bush is right. Sort of. The class divide between journalists and the poor and working-class Americans many of us claim to write for and about is real, though it has little to do with political ideology and is more complicated than the faux populists of the Right would have us believe. Russell Baker, the former New York Times columnist, got closer to the mark in the Dec. 18 issue of The New York Review of Books. "Today’s top-drawer Washington news- people ... belong to the culture for which the American political system works exceedingly well," he wrote. "The capacity for outrage had been bred out of them."

So much for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. As Baker points out, we are the comfortable. The demographics confirm it. We are part of the professional class, reasonably affluent and well educated. By 1996, for example, the last time the American Society of Newspaper Editors conducted a broad survey of the U.S. newsroom, 89 percent of journalists had finished college. Meanwhile, only 27 percent of all Americans have four or more years of college, according to the latest census.

Yet numbers alone can’t explain the uneven and often subtle contours of this story. The press has the power to shape how people think about what’s important, in effect to shape reality. But whose reality is being depicted? This is how the class divide between journalists and a large swath of the populace comes into play.

Just one example: Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst who began measuring the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC in 1987, finds that since then coverage of economic issues has steadily skewed away from stories of poverty and toward stories concerning wealth. Thus, the poor have become increasingly invisible. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the social justice arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported in 2002 that its annual survey of American attitudes toward poverty showed that "the general public substantially underestimates the dimensions of poverty in the United States." Most respondents, it said, "maintained that poverty affects some one million people in this country." The real number is thirty-five million.

This divide, this inability of one America to see and understand the other Americas, has something to do with the collective howl from the mainstream press over the "offshoring" of white-collar jobs -- turning Lou Dobbs into a protectionist -- after years of writing off blue-collar job losses as the price of progress. And with why the Democratic candidates’ anti-poverty policies were all but ignored, despite the fact that both John Edwards and John Kerry had extensive "urban America" proposals on their Web sites. And with why Philip Hersh, a Chicago Tribune sportswriter, wrote in January that the disgraced skater Tonya Harding "grew up in an environment that ... reeked of white trash," and when called on it by a reader and the Tribune’s public editor, replied that he had "thought long and hard before using it. The term fit Tonya Harding perfectly."

The divide helps explain why Frank Gilliam, a political scientist at UCLA who studies issues of race and local TV news, was told by residents in both a poor black neighborhood and a poor white neighborhood in Indianapolis that the press "only focused on the bad stuff, that they had no access to the media, and were not treated with respect by the media." It also helps explain the growth of ethnic newspapers. And it has something to do with why Abby Scher, who runs the New York Office of the Independent Press Association, got the following response from a magazine editor in Chicago when she told him, after graduating from college in the eighties, that she couldn’t afford to take a job for $8,500 a year: "Can’t your parents help you out?"

We in the press have a responsibility to engage everyone, not just those readers and viewers with whom we share cultural and economic touchstones. The good news is that the best reporters and serious news outlets find ways to bridge this divide. The bad news is that we don’t do it often enough, and our reluctance to talk about class -- in the newsroom and elsewhere -- makes it hard to change the equation. There are consequences to the fact that millions of people in this country see little of themselves and their lives in the media, unless they are connected somehow to a problem. It may have something to do with why the press is so disliked and distrusted; or why daily newspaper circulation has been in decline for twenty years. Every reporter has his blind spots. But when we all share many of the same blind spots, it makes it difficult to see the forty-four million people who lack health insurance in this country, for example, as anything but the face of failed social policies -- important but abstract.

In Search of the Working Class

Anthony DePalma, who has been a national correspondent and a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and now covers environmental issues, says that for years he felt as though he had "snuck my way into the paper." DePalma grew up the son of a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey. He recalls seeing his father sitting at the kitchen table at the end of a workday, in T-shirt and reading glasses, paging through the Jersey Journal. "I never saw my dad read anything else, but he would spend forty-five minutes with the Journal every day," DePalma says. "It sent a semiconscious message about a newspaper’s ability to reach a wide audience."

DePalma graduated from Seton Hall in 1975 (the first in his family to go to college), married, and went to work unloading trucks for UPS on the overnight shift. During the day, he freelanced. In 1986, after doing quite a bit of work for the Times over the years, he was hired as a reporter in the real estate section. "The lowest rung, the backdoor, whatever you want to call it," he says. Inside, DePalma felt the divide. "The Pulitzers, the Ivy Leagues. I felt it very strongly," he says. "You have to understand, the Times never crossed the threshold at our house, growing up."

The very idea of class makes Americans, including journalists, uncomfortable. It grates against the myth, so firmly ingrained in our national psyche, that ours is a society of self-made men, with bootstraps. This idea persists even though upward mobility, in any broad sense, is becoming a myth. It adds a moral tinge to discussions of poverty, a notion that the poor must shoulder much of the blame for their plight, and the corollary, that the wealthy should be credited for their success.

Class is also difficult to discuss because it has become so connected to the polarizing issue of race. When Alexis Patterson, a black seven-year-old from Milwaukee, and Elizabeth Smart, a fourteen-year-old white girl from Salt Lake City, vanished within a month of each other in 2002, the press turned Smart into a national crusade while few people outside of Milwaukee ever heard of Patterson. Race had something to do with why, as did the circumstances of each case; Elizabeth’s abduction from her bed, which was witnessed by her terrified little sister, arguably made for a better story than Alexis, who vanished on her way to school. But class played a role, too. Patterson came from a poor neighborhood, and her stepfather had done time on a drug charge. Smart’s father is a real-estate broker, and her uncle a photographer with the local newspaper.

Class is problematic, too, because we don’t agree on how to define it. Is it about education? Income? Where do the swelling ranks of the working poor fit in? Under the headline "What is Rich?" a Houston Chronicle article last year illustrated how "in one of the world’s most affluent countries, few seem to see themselves as rich, even if they’re in the upper-income brackets." Michael Zweig, an economist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who directs the Center for Study of Working Class Life, defines class based on power. Using data from the census bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he designated occupations as working class, middle class, or capitalist class by the relative power each job affords. A truck driver is working class, for example, but a truck driver who owns his own rig is an independent contractor and is therefore middle class. By this measure, Zweig says, 62 percent of the country’s workforce is actually working class. "That’s eighty-five million people, hardly a special interest group," he says.

Zweig’s formula resonated with Paul Solman, an economics reporter on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, on PBS. In the spring of 2003, Solman was doing a series of reports on the jobless recovery, and he interviewed Zweig. With the camera rolling, Solman said to Zweig, "By your measure, I am middle class, right?" Zweig agreed, then nodded to the cameraman behind Solman, "And he is working class." Solman looked over his shoulder at his well-paid cameraman, "Is that true, Kevin?" Kevin thought for a minute and said that it was. "Why?" Solman asked. Kevin answered, "Because I can’t say ‘cut.’"

Says Solman: "I was struck by that because it suggested that the variable wasn’t income, but power, and to a lesser extent security."

Yet in our national discourse, we are a middle-class country, period. In polls people tend to identify as middle class, regardless of what they do or how much money they make. (Zweig notes that poll respondents are rarely given the choice of "working class," but when they are, more choose that than "middle class.") From a journalistic standpoint, the working class has historically been linked to organized labor. As labor’s numbers, and thus its political power, declined, so did our coverage of it. With its most important public countenance fading, the working-class perspective largely disappeared, too.

DePalma recently got a taste of just how difficult it can be to recapture that perspective in any consistent way. When the Times began its "Portraits of Grief" project on those killed in the World Trade Center, DePalma volunteered. "They were people I knew," he says, "and I realized that this is a world I had been running away from all these years." DePalma wrote a portrait of someone who had gone to his high school. He wrote six portraits of fellow Seton Hall graduates. Afterward, he discussed his experience writing portraits with Jonathan Landman, then the paper’s Metro editor. "Jon said there are all these people out there who we never write about," DePalma recalls. "People who basically play by the rules, don’t make huge demands on public services. We ignore them except when they die in a tower." Together they decided that DePalma would take on a new beat that sought to fill this gap in the coverage, a working-class beat.

From June 2002 to August 2003, only two of DePalma’s stories from this mini-beat -- he was still a general assignment reporter -- made page one. The centerpiece was a series about a block in Ozone Park, Queens. DePalma wrote about Rosemere and Danny Messina, who were struggling to save ten dollars a week to celebrate their son’s first Holy Communion; about Joseph Raia, retired on permanent disability, who agonized over whether to raise the rent on his long-time tenants -- a couple with two young children whom Raia is close to -- in the face of the city’s property tax increase; about Antoinette Francisco’s frustrating effort to care for a neglected tree, which the city eventually cut down.

In September of last year, DePalma got a fellowship at Notre Dame, and handed the beat off to a fellow reporter to tend in her spare time until he got back. When he returned in January, no stories had been done, Landman had been promoted, and interest in the working-class beat seemed lacking. "It had tremendous support from the Metro desk, but it is hard to see how that support was carried out more broadly in the paper," DePalma says. "I always took that to mean there was a discomfort with terms like ‘working class’, and attempts to define class in meaningful ways." DePalma chose to move on.

Landman, now an assistant managing editor, disputes the notion that the beat had little support beyond Metro. "I never heard anybody express or signal discomfort with the idea of reporting on class," he said via e-mail, noting that "support in Metro is what you need to succeed in Metro," anyway. As for why the beat was dropped, Landman says that DePalma asked for the environmental beat when he returned from Notre Dame.

For his part, DePalma doesn’t hide his disappointment.

"The idea was to expose our readers to a world we normally ignore, the same way we would with villagers in, say, Suriname," he says. "It is fairly pitiful to compare the working class in this country to villagers in Suriname, but they are almost equally unknown."

'A Secure Lodgement'

Contrary to the comforting notion of the press standing firmly behind the little guy, there was never a Golden Age when American journalism consistently sided with the powerless against the powerful. By 1927, H.L. Mencken was already lashing the press for what he saw as its upwardly mobile ambitions. "A good reporter," he wrote, "used to make as much as a bartender or a police sergeant; he now makes as much as the average doctor or lawyer, and probably a great deal more. His view of the world he lives in has thus changed. He is no longer a free-lance in human society, thumbing his nose at its dignitaries; he has got a secure lodgment in a definite stratum, and his wife, if he has one, maybe has social ambitions."

There was once, though, a prominent strain of American journalism that was much more organically connected to the poor and the working class. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, for instance, Appeal to Reason, a socialist weekly out of Kansas, drew hundreds of thousands of readers with its scathing indictments of the inequities of unfettered capitalism by the likes of Upton Sinclair and Eugene Debs. In the 1940s, the short-lived New York paper, PM, was a more mainstream incarnation of this same spirit. Its motto: "PM is against people who push other people around." In the years before Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1976, the New York Post made something of a last stab at bottom-up journalism. By the 1960s, though, TV was on its way to becoming the dominant journalistic force, the newspaper business began hitching its star to Wall Street, and the age of corporate media was under way. The path to a journalism job led, increasingly, through journalism school, and thus began a new round of professionalization in the business.

Meanwhile, in the late 1960s the Republican Party began recasting itself as the party of the hardhats, those angry white men (mostly) -- real Americans -- who resented the decade’s emphasis on the struggles of blacks, the poor, and the spoiled hippies who were against the Vietnam war. Part of this strategy was to portray the press as members of a liberal elite, the New Class, that was out of touch with these real Americans. This charge, remarkably, has kept the press more or less on its heels ever since. The soul-searching on display in a column Joseph Kraft wrote in the wake of the 1968 Democratic National Convention -- "Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans ..." -- echoes today in the press’s paralyzing fear of being accused of liberal bias. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected and began vilifying the poor, the press -- increasingly corporate and cowed -- was in no position to resist.
In the 1980s, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened -- and journalists were increasingly among the haves. The middle class split, as blue-collar manufacturing jobs disappeared and were replaced by a tide of low-paying, insecure service sector jobs and an expansion of the professional class. Under Reagan, the country sprinted into the ample arms of a shiny new money culture, offering salvation through free markets (and later through technology). Media deregulation launched a leap-frogging series of media mergers that culminated -- for the time being -- in the ill-fated AOL purchase of Time Warner in 2001. So as journalists joined a broader professional elite, the companies they worked for swelled into corporate behemoths.

In the 1990s, the Internet economy and its overnight millionaires sharpened the wage envy of the new generation of journalists for their professional-class counterparts. David Denby’s new book, "American Sucker," about his own sad money chase, lays bare this phenomenon of irrational exuberance. So many journalists either bolted for the Internet ether, or threatened to, that some newspapers began offering stock options to hang on to their talent. The divide got a little wider. "A world where money is a marker and all comparisons are directed upward makes it hard to understand people for whom a million dollars would be a fortune, or those for whom $10,000 would be the difference between affording college or not, not to mention those for whom $246 is a full week’s earnings, before tax, at the minimum wage," wrote James Fallows in an essay called "The Invisible Poor," published in the Mar. 19, 2000 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Later in that same piece, he wrote, "Compared with the software elite, the professional-class American finds it easier to imagine financial ruin .... But there is a great similarity between the view from the top and the view from the next few tiers: the increasing haziness and ‘Oh, yes, now that you remind me’ nature of the view of the poor."

The evolution of journalism as a profession -- with its higher ethical standards and emphasis on expertise, good writing, and analysis -- was crucial for the press to keep pace with the world. But it came at a cost. When the barriers to entry into journalism were lower, newsrooms were open to people who brought a wider range of life experiences to their reporting and editing than we have today. To be sure, that era had its problems. It was inhabited almost exclusively by white men, for one. But an interesting thing about that ASNE survey, mentioned earlier, is how so many attitudes cut across age, race, gender, or ethnic lines. What diversity there is, it seems, is only skin deep.

Empathy and Imagination

The opening scene in Alex Kotlowitz’s 1991 book, "There Are No Children Here," offers a hint as to how we might begin to bridge this divide. It starts with a group of boys from a Chicago public housing project hunting for garter snakes in the weeds beside some train tracks. Even for someone who didn’t grow up in public housing, this is a familiar scene. And that, says Kotlowitz, is the point. "The obvious place to open it is with a scene of violence, because there is violence all through the book," he says. "But instead I began with this benign moment, to show that even kids whose lives are so precarious find refuge in some of the same things we all did."

Kotlowitz’s subjects were poor, not working class, and in some ways the press does a better job of covering poor people and their issues. The poor have agencies and policies and activists to create pegs for stories. We have a public discourse about poverty in a way we don’t about the working class. Still, that discourse is too often one-dimensional: The poor are a problem, victims and perpetrators, the face of failed social policies. Such stories need to be done, of course; news is often about problems, things that are broken. Yet for those of us who are lucky enough to have health care, plenty to eat, a home, and a job that gives us discretionary income, the news has a lot to offer besides problems. We see our lives reflected in the real estate section, the travel section, the food section, the business section. When was the last time you read a story about how to buy a good used car for less than a thousand dollars?

The press has difficulty seeing, as Kotlowitz puts it, what is familiar about the poor. "There are so few reporters who spend time in these communities, that when they are there it seems exotic and foreign," he says. "We are so appalled by what we see that we are only looking for what is unfamiliar." This makes it hard to empathize.

Fear, too, makes it difficult to see what is familiar about the poor. Most people working in journalism today grew up in a society that taught us that housing projects were only dangerous places to be avoided. As Jamie Kalven, a Chicago-based writer and public housing activist, put it in Slate in 2002, fear "blocks our capacity for perception, for learning. When mediated by fear, ignorance can coexist with knowledge, blindness with vision. As a result, decent people find it possible to support indecent policies." In an interview, Kalven amplifies the point. Fear, he says, makes us hostage to a "one-dimensional moral geography" composed of good places and bad places, and "somehow people who are decent and morally sensitive are able to read The New York Times and listen to NPR every day and still hold this notion."

This flattened coverage is evident in the press’s treatment of Chicago’s massive "transformation plan," which began in 1996 and involves razing all of the city’s public housing high-rises and replacing them with mixed-income developments. The plan represents a fundamental shift in the way the city houses its poor, and a number of cities around the country are following Chicago’s lead. There has been a fair amount of coverage over the last seven years, both local and national, and some of it has been important and thoughtful. For example, a series by the Chicago Tribune in 1998 showed how, contrary to the goals of the plan, many displaced public housing residents were ending up in neighborhoods that were just as solidly poor and racially monochrome as the ones they left.

But much of the coverage is top-down, focused on the problems and the process, and heavy with official sources. It is full of middle-class assumptions and fears, including this from a Nov. 10, 1999, USA Today piece on the new mixed-income developments: "The wealthier families bring a greater work ethic and sense of community pride to once-desolate neighborhoods, officials say."

Against this backdrop, Mary Schmich’s columns in the Tribune on Cabrini-Green, one of Chicago’s most famous projects, stand out. Since May 2000, Schmich, a Metro columnist, has written two dozen columns on various characters tied to the closing of Cabrini. Those characters -- from three black girls saying goodbye to their old school and hello to a new one, to a young white couple who bought into the new, mixed-income Cabrini community -- spring from the page fully formed.

As one of the schoolgirls, referring to her anxieties about going to school with white kids for the first time, said to Schmich, "We the same kind of people inside." It was impossible not to feel a connection to these people, partly because Schmich refused to romanticize their situations. But she also showed us their insecurities, their prejudices, their joy. "Too often reporters who want to write about public housing have very fixed ideas of how to write these stories," she says. "They have the characters in their heads, because they watch too much 'Law & Order'."

Schmich, who has been at the Tribune since 1985, says three things allowed her to feel as if she weren’t writing about "someplace else" when doing the Cabrini columns. For starters, she lives in an affluent neighborhood that abuts Cabrini, and has been "hanging out" around Cabrini for ten years. She also grew up in Georgia near people who were poor and black, and her own father had, as Schmich says, "numerous jobs and we were often broke. The differences between me and the people in Cabrini is that there were patches in my childhood when I wasn’t so poor, my parents were educated, and I was white, people helped me out," she says. "When I did these columns it wasn’t anthropology, but rather from a sense that these were my neighbors."

Her main criticism of how her paper covers the poor in Chicago is really a criticism of journalism broadly. "I think this paper has a very deep commitment to covering the whole range of people and issues in Chicago," Schmich says. "But it is a question of how we do it. We bite off a huge project every few years, and that has the effect of reducing the poor to a problem. Then they disappear largely until the next big project."

'What If'

There are consequences to covering the poor in this one-dimensional way, consequences that the more affluent subjects of news stories can avoid. "You’re dealing with a population that has extremely limited resources for self-representation," says Jamie Kalven. "They have no mechanism for holding folks accountable." In a Newsweek article on the Chicago transformation plan from May 15, 2000, for instance, Mayor Richard M. Daley is quoted as saying, "What people want is education, jobs and job training." But in a survey that Kalven’s organization did in 2000 that asked residents of the Stateway Gardens housing project what they most wanted for their neighborhood, three of the top five answers were related to better health care, but the other two were "more activities for children" and "more cultural activities," like theater and music. Says Kalven: "These people were asserting their dignity as human beings. Our entire discourse defines them as problems, and they quietly resist it, but no one is listening."

All this would seem to suggest that if we want more nuanced coverage of the poor and the working class, then we should hire more reporters and editors who come from poor and working class backgrounds. But, as many good reporters continue to prove, you don’t have to be a coal miner’s daughter to write well about Appalachia. Kotlowitz, for example, grew up comfortably middle class on New York’s Upper West Side. In fact, being an insider can bring some unexpected problems. Wil Cruz, a Newsday reporter who was born and raised in the LaGuardia Houses, a public housing project on New York’s Lower East Side, knows something of this. "If you and I were to go cover a story in the south Bronx, they would see you as official and treat you with some respect," he says. "They would be more comfortable with me, but I’m not sure that works to my advantage. They might see me as showing off my success."

Reporters do, however, need to be motivated to get beyond our assumptions. To do that it helps, as the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s Maja Beckstrom says, to be able to imagine "What if?" An interesting thing emerged as I interviewed reporters for this piece: A large number of them were raised by single mothers, including Beckstrom, the author David Shipler, The Washington Post’s Anne Hull, and The Guardian’s Gary Younge. All said something similar, that experiencing the fragility of a broken family -- no matter how quickly or comfortably things settled -- allowed them to imagine how close they are to those in society whose lives seem, from the outside, to be nothing but problems. Hull, a national features writer at the Post, isn’t sure just how her background shaped her as a reporter, but says this: "I’m much more comfortable around these people than I am being at, say, the courthouse, or places where everyone wears a suit. Maybe I’m intimidated by power. I don’t know."

"These people" Hull refers to include the young immigrants and children of immigrants in Atlanta whom she wrote about in a four-part series in late 2002. The original idea, not surprisingly, was a piece on the growth of Latino gangs in Atlanta -- a problem. But Hull came back with a richer story about kids who were caught between their desire to escape the world of their parents and an American society that often failed them, either in the classroom or on the streets. "A lot of writing about immigrants today is really precious, and reduces them to a single dimension: hard-working," Hull says. "But they’re real people, with flaws. They make bad decisions."

It takes time for outsiders to write these stories; Hull spent sixteen months on her Atlanta series. That may be an extreme, but to do these stories right requires that such coverage be a newsroom priority.

The Obstacles

Spurred by its 1998 project on poverty, the Pioneer Press created a poverty beat and gave it to Maja Beckstrom. In 2002 she went on maternity leave and the beat died, a victim, she says, of the paper’s "effort to rethink priorities of coverage given a tight budget." Once back at work, she was given the choice of a twenty-something lifestyle beat or one on parenting and families. Beckstrom chose the latter.

Even if reporters are attuned to the complexities of life for the poor and the working class, they face a number of obstacles to getting those stories in the paper or on the air. The profit expectations of newspapers and television news operations have had a dramatic and well-known effect on the quality of journalism: shorter stories, fewer reporters, and a focus on those readers who appeal to advertisers. "There aren’t too many publishers who come striding into the newsroom demanding more coverage of the ghetto," says Walker Lundy, a former editor of the Pioneer Press and The Philadelphia Inquirer, who is now retired. "You can’t sell many ads when your readers don’t have credit cards, and thus some readers are worth more than others."

The priorities of corporate media aside, the very ways we define and deliver news today work against the kind of coverage Hull, Schmich, and the others are after. Our devotion to the ideal of objectivity produces too many stories that are so concerned with "balance" that they end up saying very little. The pace of the news cycle, as well as the shrinking newshole, foster a way of thinking about the news that doesn’t lend itself to nuance and complexity. We are trained to find the quick hit, not to connect the various dots and reach conclusions. For example, a new study of how New York City’s daily newspapers covered the city’s post-9/11 budget crisis, commissioned by the nonprofit Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, found that the coverage failed "to clarify the stakes of policy decisions on various socioeconomic classes." The coverage, the study concluded, suggested that "everyone’s interests are identical." Not surprisingly, the sources used to delineate and explain those interests were mostly politicians and government officials.

For David Shipler, the former New York Times correspondent whose latest book is about the working poor, it took a newsroom strike to free him of the confines of daily journalism. "I was in Moscow with the Times when we went on strike in 1978," he says. "For three months I didn’t have to write for the paper, and I stopped thinking in terms of the seven-hundred-word story. I began to notice things that I hadn’t stopped to consider, to see patterns and connections. That’s why I was able to write a book. I got a different lens. When your antennae are highly tuned for the ‘good story,’ these things go by you. Unless a paper is willing to give reporters the freedom to not write every day, then it will be hard for them to find a new lens."

Dale Maharidge, who won a Pulitzer for his 1989 book And Their Children After Them, about rural poverty, never found it difficult to see the world from the bottom up. Since taking his first journalism job at The Gazette of Medina in Cleveland, his hometown, in 1977, Maharidge has been referred to by editors, somewhat derisively, he says, as the "bum writer." He was the son of a steelworker who had a side business at home, grinding cutting tools for industrial use. "I literally grew up breathing steel dust," says Maharidge. His new book, Homeland, due out July 4, is about an undercurrent of working-class -- really working-poor -- anger that Maharidge says predates 9/11. The book highlights the kinds of stories the press misses because of this "lens" problem Shipler talks about.

Among the people Maharidge introduces us to are a mother and son who live together in Bridgeview, a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, where, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a white mob marched on a local mosque, threatening to burn it down. In 2002, on the first anniversary of the attacks, there was another march in Bridgeview, and Maharidge was there for it. He saw the mother and son, carrying an American flag, being chased off by the police, and he followed them and got their names and address. A few days later he went to their house. Two hours later he had a deeper understanding of the anger on display in that march, and it wasn’t as much about anti-Muslim bigotry as press accounts surmised. The son, who was in his mid-thirties, couldn’t work because of a heart condition. He showed Maharidge a grocery bag full of medical bills -- $200,000 worth, the son said -- that he had no way to pay. The mother, who needed knee-replacement surgery that she couldn’t afford, lifted her shirt to show him a pain patch on her back. She worked for seven dollars an hour at J.C. Penney, but had no insurance. "Would they have still been racists if they had jobs and insurance?" Maharidge says. "Sure. But would they have been out there marching? Maybe not."

Outrage

There are things that we could do to address this class divide and get a news report that is, as the Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans put it, "multiperspectival." The most obvious is to broaden our diversity recruitment programs to include a specific focus on class. Efforts to bring racial and ethnic diversity to the newsroom have struggled, and this one wouldn’t be any easier. But Tim Rutten, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, cautions against fatalism on the question of building socioeconomic diversity. "I worked with the first black in the L.A. Times newsroom, the first Latino, the first woman editor, and the first woman on the masthead," he says. "All those things are commonplace now in journalism, but there was a time when each seemed an impossible social barrier."

Editors might do more to encourage reporters like Newsday’s Wil Cruz as he struggles to figure out how to use his background -- he dropped out of high school before eventually getting a degree from New York’s City College -- to inform his reporting on his new beat, education. "I don’t know if it gives me power," he says of his atypical path to journalism. "If it does, I haven’t been able to channel that advantage into my stories. But I need to, because I see it as a responsibility to do it right."

Newspapers need to play to their strengths, and stop trying to compete with the electronic media on every breaking story. The ability of even the sharpest journalism to effect real change is incremental at best, but the stories that have a shot -- the scoops that matter -- are those that go deep and tell us important things about the world, that challenge the way we think about something. David Barstow and Lowell Bergman’s Pulitzer-winning articles last year in The New York Times said something important about worker safety in this country, but they took seventeen months to complete and involved a dozen reporters, researchers, producers, and editors. As important as those stories were, though, they are indicative of how the press approaches the poor and the working class. As Mary Schmich says, we embrace the big project, then ignore them until time for the next big project. Day to day, their perspectives and concerns are missing from the media.

A bit of outrage would help, too. Russell Baker says that outrage has been "bred" out of us, that we come from a class for whom the system has largely worked, and he’s right. The working class has all but disappeared from our pages and no one seems to notice. We report on the poor, but do little to empower the poor. That’s what makes the recent crusade by the New York Daily News to raise the state’s minimum wage so noteworthy. Not only did the paper have a reporter dogging the issue from the field, but its editorial page hammered away at it for months.

Anthony DePalma says that the outrage is still with us, but that it takes a crisis -- a pair of kids starving to death in Newark, an innocent man being shot forty-one times by the police in the Bronx -- to draw it to the surface. Well, how about this for a crisis: We are the richest country in the history of the world, and we tolerate thirty-five million of our fellow Americans living in poverty; we tolerate forty-four million without health insurance. Meanwhile, Gannett pays Larry Miller, its outgoing CFO, $600,000 a year for an open-ended "consulting" contract, in addition to a car and golf club membership.

Brent Cunningham is the Managing Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

TV on Steroids

Since the dawn of television, almost six decades ago, every TV station in America has had the capacity to beam out just one program at a time -- Gunsmoke or The Huntley-Brinkley Report or Survivor or 60 Minutes. That was then; welcome to now: the Digital Era of broadcasting. The so-called analog, one-channel version of television will soon be as archaic as a 1950 Studebaker. Since the passage in 1996 of a new Telecommunications Act, all of the country's television stations are allowed to reach their viewers on as many as six channels -- simultaneously! Benefits for the public have been slow in coming, but suddenly "multicasting" -- that's the hot new word -- is on the lips of everybody in TV land.

Take WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, a pioneer in the new age of broadcasting. Last year, on one of its new digital outlets, a service called NewsChannel, the station aired live, full coverage of the murder trial of a well-known local figure accused, and eventually convicted, of killing his wife. It was a story of broad local interest, but one for which the station would not have preempted popular CBS shows on its lone analog channel.

Other examples:

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