Journalists like to know.
They have to know, of course, to do their jobs. How can you explain a
situation to other people if you don't have it figured out yourself?
But it's more than that. Journalists by nature are the kind of people
who pride themselves on having the inside view of what's going on.
I can think of so many journalists who start a conversation by saying,
"What do you hear?"
But recently we've been confronted with situations in which it's
impossible to know.
Take the war in Afghanistan. For many aspects of the fighting, firsthand
information has been extremely hard to come by.
That's partly due to the nature of the war. A conflict fought from the
air and with secret special forces operations doesn't lend itself to a
lot of journalistic access.
But that's only part of the story.
Another significant part is the Bush administration's closed-mouth
Barry Zorthian, for four years the chief American spokesman in Vietnam,
told the New York Times that control of information about the war in
Afghanistan is "much tighter than Vietnam."
Saigon, he continued, "was almost wide open compared to this. We gave
out much more information, and we had no real problem with the media
giving away information that would harm the troops."
Seemingly forgotten during the current fighting are the Pentagon
Principles of Information, which call for telling the truth about
conflicts as quickly as possible.
The current cold shoulder comes as no surprise, of course, given the
tack taken by Dick Cheney and Colin Powell during the conflicts in
Panama and in the Persian Gulf.
As Jacqueline Sharkey wrote in AJR's October 2000 issue (see "Collective
Amnesia"), their penchant for severely restricted access and nonstop
spinning made accurate reporting virtually impossible.
As time elapsed, it became clear that the rosy scenarios painted of the
gulf fighting were far off the mark.
On the other side, the Taliban hasn't been all that eager to have
Western witnesses on the scene. It quickly expelled CNN's Nic Robertson,
and it locked up Yvonne Ridley of London's Sunday Express after she
secretly entered Afghanistan. Only the Northern Alliance has welcomed
Western journalists to tag along.
It has also been impossible to know about anthrax. In this instance, it
isn't government stonewalling but government cluelessness that has left
reporters groping for the truth.
As senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi reports (see "The Anthrax Enigma,"
page 18), journalists on the anthrax beat were deep in uncharted waters.
There had never been an episode of bioterror in this country before, and
reporters and officials alike struggled to cope. Often, contradictory
statements from authorities made a difficult task even more challenging.
Compounding the confusion was the mystery of it all: No one knew who was
behind the anthrax assault.
And reporters found knowledge an elusive target.
Sure, there was an unmistakable air of anticlimax about the media's
The once-burning issue of who really won the 2000 presidential election
seems a vestige of a distant era.
Once George W. Bush took the oath of office, most Americans put the
issue behind them. After September 11, even diehard Democratic partisans
raised no questions about the legitimacy of the Bush presidency.
So was the expensive, nearly yearlong tally a waste of time? Far from
The findings were fascinating. And beyond the numbers, the reexamination
shed light on the vast array of deficiencies in the way Florida — and it's
hardly alone — elects its officials. It can only help speed the way to
What the consortium did, like the similar initiative that preceded it by
the Miami Herald and USA Today, was important journalism. There were
significant unanswered questions that needed to be pursued.
The fact that the findings weren't timely or sexy — or definitive — doesn't
diminish the value of the quest.
Jill Rosen debuts on the masthead this month as AJR's assistant managing
editor. Jill spent nine years in the newspaper business, reporting,
among other places, for South Florida's Sun-Sentinel and North
Carolina's Greensboro News & Record. For the past two years she was
managing editor of civic.com, which, despite its Weblike name, was a
print magazine — until it succumbed to the nation's economic slump in
We're delighted to add her to the lineup.