Sunday, April 8, 2012

From Mike Wallace To Judith Miller

One of the greats of television journalism is dead. He passed away Saturday night at a caring home in the United States. 

At 93, Mike Wallace leaves behind a tremendous legacy. There is little question that American ingenuity takes the credit for the rise of TV journalism in the world. Mr. Wallace belonged to a generation of American TV professionals who set the standards for what we recognize globally today as news television. 

That generation of American journalists set the bar very high. 

That's the reason why the US media became so influential in the world. It certainly didn't happen because America had a formidable military power. 

What is unfortunate is that influential parts of US media failed to maintain the standards set by Mr. Wallace's generation, of rigorous questioning of authority. And of maintaining a credible distance between journalism and authority. Certainly the media's relationship with government must not be confrontational. But it should not be prone to government manipulation at critical times, such as when the state decides to launch a war of choice characterized by deceit. 

That's what happened with Judith Miller who misled The New York Times, the American people and the world on Iraq and the links between terrorists and WMD.  But she was not alone. NYT editors helped her and the paper become a PR arm for the government. It took one of those editors eight years to come clean on this. 

It gets worse. In recent years, some American editors willingly provided accreditation to intelligence agents disguised as journalists. It happened in the case of Roxana Saberi, caught red handed in Tehran spying for Central Intelligence Agency. She was released under a deal whose terms remain secret but appear to include a commitment on her part never to speak to US media about what she was doing in Iran. She was not a journalist and yet an editor of an American newspaper issued her a press card as cover for spying for CIA in another country. 

After 2002, a new type of journalism invaded US media and we in Pakistan experienced it firsthand. All of a sudden there was a rush of 'news reports' and opinion pieces all seemingly coming from diverse outlets quoting unnamed sources but reading from the same talking points: Pakistan is evil, nukes are up for grab, and this is a place worse than Iraq and hence needs to be fixed. 

None of this has anything to do with Mr. Wallace's legacy. 

And yet his passing provides us an opportunity to remember what endeared America to the world. It is the pure American ingenuity personified by Mr. Wallace's creed. That's the real face of America that the world should see. Not the militaristic, deceitful and the warmongering one personified by Ms. Miller, Ms. Saberi and those who backed them. Recently, this Miller-Saberi side of America has turned hateful, with the near assassination of Gabrielle Gifford and the brutal murder of an Iraqi mother in an American suburb. 

It's been a long way from Mike Wallace to Judith Miller. But it is Wallace that represents what's good about America. Let's stick to that. 

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