Friday, August 27, 2004


By William Fisher

I am about to hit the third rail of American politics: Saying something less than gushingly laudatory about the 9/11 Commission.

Well, it’s actually less about the Commission than it is about the testimony of some of its members at hearings last week before a couple of committees of the House of Representatives.

The subject was ‘public diplomacy’. Translating this Washington-speak, public diplomacy consists of the things we say and do to get the world to understand and love us. More specifically, the hearings were about how the United States should reach out to the Muslim world.

The Commission’s report was absolutely right in saying that the US cannot win the battle against terrorism with the military alone, that we’re also fighting a war of ideas, and we can only win that war with better ideas. “The United States must do more to communicate its message”, the Commission’s report declares.

But what is the message? According to Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, Vice-Chairman Lee Hamilton, and Commission member Jamie Gorelick, the American message needs to be about our moral values, about how generous the American people are, about the need for better education, more libraries, women’s rights, closing the digital divide, and religious, racial and ethnic tolerance.

That’s all good stuff. But Commission members, in their scrupulous and unusual effort to remain nonpartisan, were visibly walking on political eggs to avoid any mention of the indispensable factor in the public diplomacy equation: Policy.

Yet every poll taken in the last few years tells us it is not America that is hated around the world, it is American foreign policy. And neither the Commission witnesses, nor any of the Republicans on these House committees, was prepared to discuss policy.

Only the ranking Democrats on the committees, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Rep. Tom Lantos of California, weighed in with policy rants, and even these two Democrats disagreed on many issues. US policy toward Israel, for example.

Which made the discussion about tools. The tools we should be using to influence the world: Broadcasts, exchange programs, aid to strengthen economic development and civil society, and suchlike. This is a useful discussion because, unlikely as it may seem, the country that virtually invented modern communications has not been hugely successful in the way it uses its tools.

But tools are only messengers. They don’t make the message; they simply convey it.

But trying to discuss public diplomacy without discussing foreign policy is like moving bureaucratic boxes around and persuading voters you’ve actually achieved something. It makes hearings like these even more farcical than most of what goes on in Congress.

Ever since the 9/11 Commission issued its final report, the men and women of our Congress have been running for political cover like cats on a hot tin roof. It has been seen as something approaching blasphemy to question any of the Commission’s findings and recommendations – President Bush simply couldn’t wait to get to the Rose Garden to announce he was going to appoint an intelligence czar and create a national counter-terrorism center.

The Commission should not be faulted for avoiding partisan and inevitably rancorous foreign policy debates. That’s what we elect an Administration and a Congress to do. And that’s what we have a right to expect – and aren’t getting – from our quadrennial electoral process.

What is clear is that we have many failed foreign policies and a President who won’t say so. If those are givens, why are we wasting the taxpayers’ money discussing tools?

About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.


By William Fisher

If you think prisoner abuse is about Abu Ghraib and a ‘few bad apples’, reading Mark Dow’s American Gulag may make you think again.

Dow is a journalist and former teacher at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center in Miami. He has spent years interviewing inmates, guards, and officials at that and the many other detention centers run by INS (now part of the new Department of Homeland Security).

"Long before Abu Ghraib, and even before September 11th”, Dow told The New Yorker magazine, “detainees in America's immigration prisons were being stripped, beaten, and sexually abused.” They were also being routinely deprived of the most basic civil rights.

Since September 11, immigration policy has become far more stringent, targeting Arab, Muslim, and South Asian foreign nationals. “Attorney General John Ashcroft has repeatedly used the term ‘terrorist’ to describe detainees, “when he was certainly in a position to know that they were not terrorists.” In fact, Dow writes, most had overstayed their visas, which could get them deported, but which is not a crime. Immigration law is not part of the US criminal justice system – which gives the INS virtually unlimited scope to hold people indefinitely, without charge, without access to attorneys, and without public disclosure.

Dow’s book describes a chamber of horrors that followed the 9/11 tragedy and the sweeping round-up of Arabs and Muslims.

Egyptian detainees held in Alabama go on a hunger strike. A Palestinian is transferred from jail to jail to keep him from contacting the media. He is told by INS officials that a condition of his release is that he cannot speak to the media about his case. If he does, they will lock him up again. An Egyptian man is confined for two months before being allowed to call a lawyer. He is given no soap or towels for a week and meanwhile interrogated. He says correctional officers stomped on his bare feet.

A Pakistani man, Mehmood, “had been traveling between Pakistan and the US since the mid-1980s. He was in the import export business. In the 1990s, he overstayed his five-year renewable visa…(He) had not been particularly surprised or concerned when, three weeks after (9/11), 25 FBI agents came knocking at the door of his Bayonne, New Jersey, home while he slept. He knew the authorities were ‘coming to Muslim houses. They just want to search us’, he said. Agents found ‘suspicious’ items – a flight simulator, a flying lesson logbook, box cutters and a hazardous materials driving permit. “But”, says Dow, “ with minimal investigation, the ‘case’ evaporated”. There were plausible – and confirmed – reasons for Mehmood to have had these items. His most serious breach of the law was altering the no-work line of his Social Security card.

When the FBI finished interviewing him, they said, “We have no problem with you. Now it’s up to the INS if they want to take you or not.” The INS arrested him. They told his wife she could expect a call from him in four to six hours, and that he would probably be freed on bail and might even get a ‘Green Card’. Bail was never set.

Dow writes: “For the first two months…Mehmood was moved each week to a new cell, handcuffed and shackled to be moved those few feet. After three weeks, he was allowed to make his first legal phone call. He was kept inside his cell for 24 hours day.” Then he was transferred first to Manhattan and then to Brooklyn. When he arrived in Brooklyn, he alleges, seven or eight correctional officers threw him out of the van, dragged him across the floor, and then threw him against a wall…with their full power.” He was injured.

Mehmood was charged with altering his social security card. He pled guilty and was sentenced to time served. He was deported back to Pakistan in mid-April, 2002. In that year, and in early 2003, “at least four charter flights took large groups of Pakistanis who had no proper documentation – or ties to terrorists – back to Pakistan. The INS called the charters “routine”. Even after Mehmood was back in Pakistan, Dow says, “Immigration officials said they could not comment on specific cases.”

Dow asks why Mehmood was held in the Special Housing Unit at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, “a federal prison, for four months and two days, and denied access to legal help and to his family for weeks?”

Dow concludes: The Bush Administration has “exploited our national trauma to extend law enforcement authority, as the long-standing biases within the Justice Department against Muslims and Arabs became politically correct.” None of this, he adds, “has anything to do with immigration…It's simply the result of excessive authority and an obsession with secrecy.”

“Today, the immigration agency holds some 23,000 people in detention on a given day and detains about 200,000 annually. The prisoners are held in the INS’s service processing centers; in local jails; in facilities owned and operated by private companies…and in Bureau of Prisons facilities, including federal penitentiaries. Wherever they are held, INS prisoners are ‘administrative detainees’; they are not serving a sentence…Immigration detainees can be held for days, months, or years…Detainees who came (to the US) from Cuba during the 1980 ‘Mariel boatlift’ are still in detention, despite a US Supreme Court against indefinite detention.” The reason given by INS is that Cuba has refused to take them back.

Detainees tend to fall into four categories: Those who have entered the US without proper documentation, including asylum-seekers (10-13% of all detainees); people with, say, a visa overstay, who can be picked up by an immigration agent and taken to detention -- either an immigration detention center or a contracted jail; people with some kind of criminal conviction -- once an immigrant completes a prison sentence, he or she can be turned over to the immigration service; finally, there is a fourth category, labeled “special detention”, for those thought to be associated with ‘terror’.

“Local politicians and business entrepreneurs have taken full advantage of the revenue possibilities in immigration detention”, Dow writes. ”The Federal Government paid New York County $45.00 per detainees per day, although it only cost the prison $24.37 to maintain each prisoner.”

“When detentions increased following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, private prison profiteers saw another opportunity. The Chairman of the Houston-based Cornell Companies spoke candidly in a conference call with other investors: ‘It can only be good…with the focus on people that are illegal and also from Middle Eastern descent…In the US there are over 900,000 undocumented individuals from Middle Eastern descent…That’s half of our entire prison population…The Federal business is the best business for us…and the events of September 11 (are) increasing that level of business…”

“The prisons themselves are often gruesome,” Dow writes. The guards are “often unprepared for the environment.” One officer, after being convicted for repeatedly kicking and punching an inmate, told Dow, “It was a situation I had never been in … I reacted … I don't know what happened.”

Almost as disturbing is the veil of secrecy surrounding the detention centers. In his investigations, Dow was often prevented from interviewing prisoners, accessing medical records, and looking at immigration guidelines. Dow also found that INS answers to no one. It eschews formal regulations. There are no monitors or independent watchdogs. Most of what we know about these prisons comes from a handful of journalists, working tirelessly to "make public what the INS tries to hide."

In its new home at the DHS, Dow says, “The secretive immigration prison world is likely to be pulled even further from public scrutiny.”

That high levels of government are aware of the situation is clear. FBI whistle-blower agent Colleen Rowley expressed concern over the pressure from FBI offices to round up Arabs in order to fill the detention centers. A newsletter from the Justice Department says, “An alien's constitutional status in this country might be something that the government can use when an alien detainee challenges his or her treatment in detention.“ Dow finds this “astonishing, and disturbing, because it tells me that high-ranking Justice Department officials know about the treatment of these detainees, but instead of trying to do something about the conditions, they're looking for a way to justify those conditions.”

On paper, he says, there are INS standards regarding immigration conditions, including attorney visitation, media interviews, law libraries, and other crucial aspects of prison life. But, says the American Civil Liberties Union, “By refusing to promulgate these standards as regulations, the INS insured that they would be difficult if not impossible to enforce.”

Dow adds: “This effort to operate outside the bounds of enforceable law is no accident…“ Attorney General Ashcroft has “likened his new policy of preventative detention to Robert Kennedy’s crackdown on the Mafia, when arrests were made for ‘spitting on the sidewalk’ in order to prevent more serious crimes.”

Dow recommends a few ways to make the INS more transparent and accountable. These include Congressional hearings to consider the 2 1/2 decades of immigration detention abuses; an investigation by the Office of Inspector General; independent, surprise monitoring of all detention centers, prisons and jails organized by nongovernmental and community groups across the country; legal counsel and judicial review for every detainee; and repeal of the 1996 anti-immigrant laws -- responsible for tripling the detention population and for the deportation of tens of thousands of long-term legal residents for past minor crimes.

But ultimately, Dow believes, “detention authority should be removed from the immigration service except in emergencies and for strictly limited periods. The American immigration bureaucracy should not be operating a prison system at all.”

American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons is published by University of California Press, Berkeley 94704, California, USA, 2004. (


Wednesday, August 25, 2004


By William Fisher

If Jews, Catholics or Protestants in the United States were being maligned, misunderstood, misrepresented, and attacked by news media and TV talking heads on a daily basis, what do you think they would do?

They would fight back. They would lay out and execute long-term programs to tell their stories. They would try to provide positive counterweights to negative criticism.

Today, Islam is being maligned, misunderstood, misrepresented, and attacked by news media and TV talking heads on a daily basis. And what do we hear from Muslims?


But silence can be deafening. It confirms America’s already widely-held belief that Muslims are terrorists, that they care more about death than about life, and that they will do whatever it takes to kill as many Americans as possible.

And the longer these attitudes persist, the more they are believed.

What to do?

Muslim Arabs – yes, Americans think all Muslims are Arabs – rarely reach unanimity about anything. That is what has made The Arab League all but irrelevant. Over the years, the disagreements among their member states have brought them to virtual paralysis.

But here is an issue on which they might just possibly find consensus. They need to come together with non-Arab Muslims to say, “Islam is being vilified, and we’re not going to take it any more!”

Then what?

In America, there is only one effective answer to ‘then what?’ Find the most thoughtful and professional public relations firm money can buy, and ask them to design a communications program to begin to educate the American media and the American public about what Islam is and is not.

Finding such a firm will not be difficult – there are at least a dozen in the US with demonstrable experience in conceiving and implementing these kinds of programs. Nor will paying their fees – world-class PR firms are expensive, but the amount is close to petty cash for the Islamic world.

What will be difficult is staying the course. Changing attitudes fuelled by events like 9/11 will not be easy. And, if the program is to be credible, Islam will have to speak frankly and often about its shortcomings and its miscreants. It cannot gloss over those who have hijacked the faith.

Nor can it be done quickly. This is a process that will take years, perhaps a generation. Ask the Saudis, who have recently launched a public relations effort in the US. Ask the Roman Catholic Church, which is going to spend many years trying to dig itself out from under the awful wreckage caused by sexual abuse. So any PR firm that talks about ‘silver bullets’ should be dismissed out of hand. The magnitude of the task will demand infinite patience.

Why should Muslims care?

First, there are several million Muslim-Americans living in the United States. Since 9/11 may of them have experienced suspicion and discrimination. Others have been victims of hate crimes. Second, the United States is the most powerful nation in the world, with the largest economy in the world. In this era of globalization, its goodwill and understanding are critical – economically, politically, socially, culturally.

That is about what Muslims and the nations they come from can get from America. But there is something equally important Islam can give to America: Deeper knowledge to help the US execute a more balanced, more culturally sensitive, more even-handed foreign policy.

And that will benefit both Islam and America.

About the writer: William Fisher spent more than twenty years in the public relations business, and then managed international economic development programs in the Middle East for the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.

Friday, August 20, 2004


By William Fisher

Jackie Mason has always been one of my favorite comics. But I have also recognized that his stereotypic ethnic humor is funny only to those whose own ethnicity makes them targets.

So I laughed into tears at his depiction of Jews as more interested in bagels than in Hiroshima, Protestants who would rather ‘have a drink’ than eat a meal, Italians who put bullets in your knees rather than forgiving a debt, and New Yorkers who take vacations to Puerto Rico to visit their (stolen) hubcaps.

No more. My love affair with Jackie has come to an abrupt and melancholy end.

Here’s why:

Mason was a guest-host on Jim Bohannon's nationally syndicated radio show during the summer and, as Tom Regan reported in the Christian Science Monitor, “went on a tear against Islam.”

Mason reportedly said: "In plain English, the whole Muslim religion is preaching and teaching hate, terrorism and murder, and nobody knows it, and it's about time they found out about it. I don't know how we can call it a religion in the traditional sense. It should be called a murderous organization that's out to kill people."

Mason's guest that evening, New York lawyer Raoul Felder – who co-authors pieces for Jewish World Review with the comic – called the prophet Muhammad a "pedophile." Regan reports that Mason couldn't be reached, but Felder said the remarks were based on the Koran and denied broad-brushing the religion.

This is not comedy, it is tragedy. For three reasons. First, Mason is a Jew. He should be the absolute last person on earth to assign collective guilt to any religion. That’s what Auschwitz tells us.

Second, thumb through any Bible of any religion in the world and you will be able to find exactly what you want. Politicians and demagogues since the beginning of Bibles have used the Good Book to justify whatever conclusion they wish to reach.

Third, I doubt whether Mason actually knows any Muslims – he once refused to perform in the same club as a Palestinian-American. He ought to go talk with the some of the millions of Muslim-Americans whose lives have been turned into exactly the same nightmare the Jews faced in Germany in the period before Chrystalnacht.

These people are American citizens, and overwhelmingly loyal Americans. Most of them found 9/11 just as unbelievable and outrageous as the rest of us. Today, they are having to fight to maintain the Constitutional rights Mason takes for granted.

Collective guilt is bad enough when it’s embraced by ordinary, if uninformed, citizens. It’s much worse when celebrities like Jackie Mason – and Pat Roberts -- get on board that no-nothing train.

As a Jew, Jackie Mason should know better than anyone that he could be next.


By William Fisher

I am sick to death of meaningless election-year rhetoric that insults the intelligence of American voters.

According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the 2004 election will be the first since the Vietnam era in which foreign affairs and national security issues are a higher priority than the economy.

So why are we talking about Vietnam? Why, when our nation faces huge problems and an uncertain future, are we fixated on a war that happened thirty years ago? Does anyone really care about what Messrs. Bush and Kerry did or didn’t do during Vietnam?

Evidently, the geniuses who manage their political campaigns care – or think the voters care. Well, they must have a way below low opinion of all of us. Or the certain knowledge that it’s easier to create mass hysteria than to discuss real issues or propose real solutions to problems.

The TV talking heads tell us the parties are simply trying to ‘energize’ their respective bases. But I don’t think the professional ‘electorati’ should be all that certain that their endless Vietnam drumbeat will ‘energize’ anything. In fact, it may well have unintended consequences: It may turn off reasonable members of both major parties, and further reinforce the already widely-held view that public service is a sham and that candidates will say and do anything to get elected.

We shouldn’t be choosing our president because he’s good at ’gotcha’ politics. Because once in office, gotcha won’t play. Who will best deal with terrorism, homeland security, Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation in Iran, Israel and North Korea, health care costs, job creation, our country’s relationships with its allies, and its place in the world?

These are the issues we should demand that presidential candidates address. The longer we permit them and their advisors to change the subject to Vietnam and other irrelevancies, the less likely we are to vote at all.

Thursday, August 12, 2004


By William Fisher

Another ‘October Surprise’ may be in store for the Bush Administration.

That’s when a Federal District court is expected to decide whether a suit brought by a Canadian citizen against Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and FBI director Robert Mueller, will go to trial.

The suit is being brought by Mahar Arar, a 34-year old telecommunications engineer who spent more than ten months being tortured in a Syrian prison after being detained by US officials at New York’s Kennedy International Airport in September 2002. He claims he was returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia. He was accused of having ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and deported to Syria, where he was born.

The suit will attempt to establish that these senior US officials are implicated in the illegal deportation. Arar claims that his deportation was carried out “with the full knowledge that Syria practices state-sponsored torture.”

The suit was filed under the Torture Victims Protection Act, enacted under former US president George Bush Sr. to help victims around the world. Arar’s lawyer, Barbara Olshansky, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, noted that this is the first case in which US officials are being accused under that statute.

Olshansky called Arar's case “a clear example of constitutional overreaching” by the US administration. She said the lawsuit alleges that US officials made the decision to deport Arar with the full knowledge that Syria practices state-sponsored torture, and that they intentionally deported him to acquire more knowledge about terrorism because Syria "can and does use methods that would not be legally or morally acceptable in this country."

In addition to Ashcroft, Ridge and Mueller, the suit names ten "John Does", who allegedly took part in Arar's detention and interrogation.

Arar is seeking a declaration that "he is entirely innocent," as well as assurances that nobody else in his situation will be treated similarly. He is also seeking damages for the economic losses he suffered during his 10 months in Syria, as well as for the mental and physical anguish endured by himself and his family.

"Until my name is cleared, neither I nor my family can move forward," Arar said from Ottawa after the lawsuit was filed. "I am a family man, a husband and an engineer. I am not a terrorist."

A spokesperson for the Center for Constitutional Rights says the US Government will file a motion to dismiss the suit “on solely legal grounds” in October, with our response thereafter, oral argument before the year is out, and a decision shortly thereafter.

Arar speaks vividly of his 10 months and 10 days in a Syrian prison, saying: "The screams of my fellow inmates filled my waking hours and remain with me to this day." He says he hopes “my lawsuit will ensure that no one else ever again has to go through what I went through at the hands of the United States government."

After his arrival in Syria, he says, Syrian officials beat him with cables for the next few days. "At the end of the day they told me tomorrow would be worse," he said.
Arar said he spent his time caged in a small cell that he called a "grave. Daily life in that place was hell," he recalls. He claims Syrian officials, trying to make a connection between him and terrorism, forced him to falsely confess that he had been in Afghanistan. "I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture." He says he was also threatened with electric shock

Arar has also demanded that the government of Canada call an inquiry into his case, a move the Prime Minister has rejected until all current investigations by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are complete. "My own government is not without responsibility for what happened," Arar said. Canadian officials have said that, before Arar was deported, the Americans had consulted with the RCMP. A commission that handles complaints against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wants the force to answer questions about whether it played a role in the deportation. But the Mounties have insisted they were not told that US plans involved sending Arar to a Syrian jail. .

Arar said he was harshly interrogated by American officials, strip-searched, imprisoned and eventually deported to Syria, despite his request to be sent back to Canada.

Syria told the Canadian Government it would charge Arar with membership in a banned Muslim organization, the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. But it freed Arar without charge after 375 days. Canada’s Foreign Ministry credits "quiet Canadian diplomacy" for his release.

Attorney General Ashcroft has defended the US deportation decision, saying it was legal and that Syria gave assurances Arar would not be tortured. The CBS news program 60 Minutes II reported that Canadian authorities were told of Washington's plan to deport Maher Arar to Syria and that they approved.

Arar was born in Syria in 1970, and came to Canada in 1987. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in computer engineering, he worked in Ottawa as a telecommunications engineer

A consortium of human rights groups has objected to Arar’s treatment in letters to President Bush and the Defense Department’s chief legal counsel. The group called on the Administration to “undertake a swift and thorough investigation into Mr. Arar’s case and to make public the results of that investigation. We also urge the Administration to investigate and publicly respond to the repeated public claims of past and present intelligence officers that the United States is participating in many prisoner transfers and that transferred prisoners are known to be tortured. Finally, we urge the Administration to end the practice of transferring persons to countries where it cannot effectively assure that they will be free from torture or other mistreatment “ The letter was signed by a number of organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch says the Arar case reinforces its concern that “diplomatic assurances may be used to return persons suspected of having information about terrorism-related activities to countries where torture is routinely used, specifically to extract such information.46 This concern is bolstered by the comments of former U.S. intelligence officials and sources within the U.S. administration who have stated publicly that they believe some transferred suspects are being tortured.”

The practice, known as ‘extreme rendering’, has become much more frequent since the 9/11 tragedy. Persons have been ‘rendered’ from the US to countries with long and well-documented histories of prisoner torture. American authorities have also facilitated the ‘rendering’ of suspects in other countries, as in the case of two Egyptians seeking asylum in Sweden, but taken back to their home country in a US Government-leased aircraft. Both say they were tortured in Egyptian prisons.

Realistically, this particular October surprise – if it happens – may draw little attention from either political party, and writers and broadcasters will be working flat-out on Presidential-year politics. That’s a pity, because it will give Messrs. Bush, Ashcroft, Mueller, et al, a free pass to persist in their claims that the war on terror has no impact on civil liberties.


Monday, August 09, 2004


By William Fisher

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked at a recent appearance in Chicago whether he thought the “reporting done by Al-Jazeera and other Arabic news sources still does not uphold the truth and moral values that the American media stand for.”

Rumsfeld’s response: “It is very tough on the terrific young folks who are over there doing wonderful things. I mean they are helping to build schools, they're helping to fix generators in public places. They're assisting people in hospitals. And they don't see that reported, and the people -- their parents back home end up seeing and hearing things that are for the most part negative, because I guess that's more newsworthy….”

The Secretary went on to say: The Arabic satellite TV channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah “have persuaded an enormous fraction of the people that we're there as an occupying force, which is a lie, that we are randomly killing innocent civilians, which is a lie… they've persuaded a pile of people that what's happening is a terrible thing...They're doing the same thing in the neighboring countries…which makes (it) much harder for those regimes.”

Rumsfeld’s media bashing was not limited to the Arab press. “One of the people from CNN”, he said, “wrote an article…reporting that (before the invasion) they purposely did not report things that …were uncomfortable for Saddam Hussein, because they would not be allowed to stay in the country. So they stayed in the country…So for a whole series of many, many, many months, the watchers of that station were seeing not what was happening in that country, but they were seeing only that which that network believed would not be unacceptable to Saddam Hussein.”

“Can we -- will we survive it?” Mr. Rumsfeld asked rhetorically. “Yes”, he answered. “Is there anything we can do about it? No.”

Rumsfeld went on to observe that “Periodically the Iraqi government…shuts down Al-Jazeera, tells them…they can't have credentials to come to the meetings for a while. But it is what it is… I wish there was something we could do about it, but it has not improved significantly.”

Which makes one wonder why the new Iraqi interim government puts together a high-level commission to draw up rules to limit press freedom, and why it bothers to close down Al Jezeera for a month, as it did last week. How is this different from the restrictions placed on the press by authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East – regimes for whom a free Iraq was supposed to be a model? Perhaps it’s true that the United States no longer has influence in Iraq.

We may all feel the images broadcast by Al-Jazeera and other Arab (and other non-Arab) media channels may be – and often are – overly grisly, unnecessary, and in the worst possible taste. But they are not manufactured. Collateral damage did actually happen. So did beheadings. So did prisoner abuse. As Mr. Rumsfeld himself admitted, “In any war, people who should not be killed are killed.”

But he went on to say that “in Iraq today the people that are being killed are, for the most part, Iraqis, and they're almost all being killed by Iraqis. And they're being killed by the extremists, by the terrorists. They're being killed by the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime.” Which makes it OK to ignore it?

The Secretary of Defense is clearly frustrated. And it’s not hard to understand why: he is confusing news with public relations.

I’m sure the Secretary is a lot more comfortable with ‘fair and balanced’ outlets like Fox News.

Sunday, August 08, 2004


By William Fisher

Referring to the US-financed Al Hurra satellite television channel in the Middle East, Edward Djerejian, who was President Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to Israel, asked recently why the region needs another state-run TV network and whether placement of US-produced programs on existing Arab channels might not seem less heavy-handed.

The Iraqi interim government’s one-month closure of the Baghdad bureau of
Al-Jazeera – the most watched TV channel in the area – does nothing at all to answer Djerejian’s question. Or the conclusion of the September 11th Commission that the United States needs to do a better job of communicating its messages.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, “Democracy in Iraq will be won by defending human rights and the people’s right to know, not by
returning to the bad old days of censorship and intimidation of journalists” said IFJ General Secretary, Aidan White.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not a big fan of Al Jazeera. I agree with Michael Young, the Opinion Page Editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, that the channel is “daring, aggressive and timely; but also selective, demagogical and gruesome”.

And I have a certain sympathy with the frustration of the Iraqi authorities, who find that Al-Jazeera has been “showing a lot of crime and criminals on TV. They transferred a bad picture about Iraq and about Iraqis. They have encouraged the criminals and the gangsters to increase their activities in the country," to quote Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib. . "This decision was taken to protect the people of Iraq and the interests of Iraq," Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told a news conference. .

But how is this different from the restrictions placed on the press by authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East – regimes for whom a free Iraq was supposed to be a model?

It isn’t. And, as public policy, it is likely to be counter-productive.

When Iraq was ‘liberated’, dozens of new media outlets – TV channels, radio stations, web blogs, daily and weekly newspapers – suddenly appeared. Long-repressed journalists were overjoyed with their newfound freedom of expression, and print and electronic debate was as lively as one would find in any advanced democracy. Then, the now defunct Coalition Provision Authority closed down the newspaper of Sunni cleric Muqtada El-Sadr, only to find it – and him – more popular when it went underground.

The press freedom race to the bottom began with interim Prime Minister Allawi’s establishment of a new media commission to impose restrictions on print and broadcast media. Under the leadership of Ibrahim Janabi, The Higher Media Commission developed a set of restrictions – called "red lines – for Iraqi media.

The formation of the Commission came amidst government concern that too much media attention is being given to rebel groups. Janabi said his commission exists only to uphold national security, not to meddle in the independent press. “In a difficult security situation, we need to fight the terrorists by all means, and one of the main means is the media,” Janabi told the Financial Times.

One of the banned actions is unwarranted criticism of Prime Minister Allawi. If that sounds familiar, it should be. It is an act also illegal in virtually every country of the Arab Middle East.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent an open letter to Allawi on July 29, saying the Commission is a potential “threat to press freedom.” CPJ urged Janabi to ensure that any actions of the Higher Media Commission comply with international standards of free expression.

“The restrictive media regulations and censorship described by Janabi would undermine the very foundation of a democratic society by restricting the free flow of information,” CPJ Executive Director, Ann J. Cooper, wrote in the letter.

Al-Jazeera said the government’s decision restrains the "right of the Arab people around the world to see a comprehensive picture about what's going on in an important region like Iraq." Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said the closure was intended to give the station "a chance to re-adjust their policy against Iraq.''

CNN reported, “In an Arab world rife with conspiracy theories, the decision to close the offices of the popular channel could reinforce the perception that decisions by Iraq's interim government are influenced by the United States, which has long complained about Al-Jazeera's coverage.”

This is not the first time Al-Jazeera has been targeted. Iraq's now-disbanded Governing Council, in place during the US occupation, banned the station's reporters from entering its offices or covering its news conferences for a month in January because it had reportedly shown disrespect toward prominent Iraqis. That was the second such ban imposed by the Governing Council on the station.

Al-Jazeera has occasionally run into problems with authorities in other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and the former Iraqi regime. Unlike Arab state-run media, the station often airs views of local opposition figures and their criticisms of their countries' rulers.

Senior US officials also have frequently criticized the station for its coverage of the war in Iraq. They accuse it of being an outlet for the al-Qaida terror network for broadcasting videotapes and audiotapes purportedly from Osama bin Laden or his aides. Al-Jazeera denies the allegations.

But count on this: The absence of Al-Jazeera for the next month will create a news vacuum – which others will surely fill. The way to stop the media from presenting pictures of prisoners being humiliated, or hostages being beheaded, is not to shoot the messenger; it is to stop the abuses.


By William Fisher

In about a week, the Commission hand-picked by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is due to release its findings on prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere. The panel is headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, and includes members of the DOD Defense Policy Review Board. Its mandate from Rumsfeld: Review Department of Defense detention operations and advise the Secretary of Defense on the “cause of the problems and what should be done to fix them.”

In its ‘what should be done to fix them’ role, the panel would do well to consider the 10-point strategy recommended to President Bush and the US Congress by Human Rights First, an independent, not-for-profit organization composed of lawyers with wide experience in prison detention and related issues. These are the group’s 10 recommendations:

Commit to upholding the laws on interrogation and detention. “…publicly affirm (America’s) commitment to upholding the letter and the spirit of the laws regulating interrogation and detention, including the Constitution of the United States, Acts of Congress, and the international treaties that it has signed…”

Investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and abuse and publicly report on all cases. “…investigate and prosecute…all those who carried out acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of U.S. and international law, as well as those officials who ordered, approved or tolerated these acts…”

Ban the use of torture. Violations should include “sexual abuse, humiliation, use or threat of electric shock, medical or chemical methods or materials, beating, shaking, hooding, "water boarding," extended sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement, and prolonged incommunicado detention (i.e., without visits from family members, consular officials, and/or legal representatives).”

Rescind all orders permitting conduct that amounts to torture and abuse. To include “interrogation orders, guidelines or regulations permitting conduct amounting to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment …”

Compensate victims of abuse and notify their families. “…in any case where violations of law are found, the victims of abuse and their families (should be) notified of all actions taken to redress the abuse, and…provided adequate reparation including compensation and rehabilitation.”

Mandate rigorous training for interrogators and ban civilian contractors from conducting interrogations. Training should include those engaged in “gathering intelligence through interrogation (and) U.S.-controlled interrogators should be instructed and examined at regular intervals…move immediately to ban the conduct of interrogation under any circumstances by civilian contractors to the U.S. government.”

Disclose the location of all U.S. detention facilities worldwide and account for all detainees in custody. Account for “the number and nationality of all individuals held, state the legal basis for their detention, and…to inform the immediate families of those detained of the detainee’s location and status.”

Inspect all military detention facilities worldwide and report findings to Congress. . “The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Army, CIA, and other relevant Inspectors General should conduct regular inspections of all military and intelligence-run interrogation facilities worldwide to ensure compliance with U.S. legal obligations. Inspectors General should document the results of these investigations in regular reports to Congress.”

Provide all those in custody visits by the Red Cross and due process. “The legal framework governing the detention of all persons in U.S. military custody should be clarified. Where required under international law, each person must be afforded an individualized determination by an independent authority of his current status, rights and obligations.”

Ban transfer of prisoners to countries that use torture. “The United States should institute rigorous and regular procedures for evaluating the likelihood of torture or other human rights violations before any individual” is transferred.

The organization says its plan “is intended to move beyond concern and dismay and set a positive way forward.” Its goal “is to help the United States reclaim its role as a leading defender of fairness and liberty in the world and to make clear that abuses like those we have seen and read about can never again be done in America's name.”

It has now been three months since the world was exposed to the despicable photos of detainees being abused in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Since then, there have been many well-documented reports of similar abuses elsewhere, and evidence suggesting that the problem goes much further up the US military’s chain of command than the “few bad apples” the Pentagon has thus far blamed.

Currently, there are six separate investigations ongoing by the Department of Defense, in addition to that of the Schlesinger panel. Of these, the public has heard the ‘preliminary’ findings of only one: the report of the Army’s Inspector General, which found no evidence of ‘systemic failure’. Both Republican and Democratic Party members of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, which heard this report in testimony before a hurriedly convened meeting, were outraged with the results. And the Schlesinger panel itself has come under suspicion because of its reportedly close ties to Secretary Rumsfeld.

Whether the US military can credibly investigate itself remains an open question. The Schlesinger Commission’s report may help us decide. But if it ignores the common-sense recommendations of Human Rights First, it will have missed a golden opportunity to begin to restore respect and credibility to the United States. Then, the US will be looking toward a truly independent body built on the model of the September 11th Commission to determine the “cause of the problems and what should be done to fix them.”


Tuesday, August 03, 2004


By William Fisher

With one exception, the prisoner abuse issue has disappeared from the public radar, buried in a bumper crop of other news including the Democrats’ convention, the report of the 9/11 Commission, the President’s endorsement of some of its recommendations, and the raising of the terror threat level.

The exception was the July 22 testimony of the Army’s Inspector General, Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, who told a hurriedly convened meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he found “no systemic problems”.

As of today, the Department of Defense has launched six investigations or reviews into the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, none is designed to probe the role of senior officers or the civilian leadership in the Pentagon or relevant policies that they may have developed.

In addition, the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has appointed a commission headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, to review Department of Defense detention operations and to advise the Secretary of Defense on the “cause of the problems and what should be done to fix them.”

As reported by Jim Lobe of Foreign Policy in Focus, the panel’s unpaid executive director, James Blackwell, has done Pentagon consulting as an employee of Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, the seventh-largest recipient of defense contract awards in fiscal 2002, with $2.1 billion. Lobe says this raises the question of whether Blackwell could challenge the Pentagon. Further, Pentagon sources have told Human Rights Watch that “those working on the outstanding investigations are under tremendous pressure not to implicate top officials.” Finally, the organization also claims that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is in frequent contact with the panel, thus raising “additional questions about its independence”.

One of the more troubling aspects of the current investigations is that none of them include the Central Intelligence Agency. Yet mistreatment of prisoners would be nothing new to this agency: The CIA has a long history of prisoner abuse, and there are many suggestions of CIA involvement in interrogation abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as well-documented evidence that the agency has systematically engaged in ‘rendering’, i.e. secretly taking detainees to countries known to use torture techniques in their prisons, and leaving them there for interrogation.

Earlier CIA history provides little more encouragement. The National Security Archive recently published two previously classified CIA interrogation-training manuals from 1960s and the 1980s, counseling "Coercive Techniques" such as those used to mistreat detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Also published was a secret 1992 report written for then Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, warning that US Army intelligence manuals incorporated the earlier work of the CIA for training Latin American military officers in interrogation and counterintelligence techniques and contained "offensive and objectionable material" that "undermines U.S. credibility, and could result in significant embarrassment."

One of the manuals includes a detailed section on "The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources," with concrete assessments on employing "Threats and Fear," "Pain," and "Debility." The language of the 1983 "Exploitation" manual draws heavily on the earlier manual, as well as on Army Intelligence field manuals from the mid 1960s to combat counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Recommendations on prisoner interrogation include the threat of violence and deprivation, but note that no threat should be made unless the questioner "has approval to carry out the threat." The interrogator "is able to manipulate the subject's environment," the 1983 manual states, "to create unpleasant or intolerable situations, to disrupt patterns of time, space, and sensory perception."

After Congress began investigating reports of Central American atrocities in the mid-1980s, the CIA's "Human Resource Exploitation" manual was hand edited to alter passages that appeared to advocate coercion and stress techniques. In1991, the Army’s Southern Command evaluated the manuals for use in expanding military support programs in Colombia. In March 1992, Secretary Cheney received an investigative report on "Improper Material in Spanish-Language Intelligence Training Manuals." Classified SECRET, the report noted that five of the seven manuals "contained language and statements in violation of legal, regulatory or policy prohibitions" and recommended they be recalled. The memo is stamped: "SECDEF HAS SEEN." A declassified memorandum of conversation with the Southern Command officer responsible for assembling the Latin American manuals states that the manuals had been forwarded to DOD headquarters for clearance "and came back approved but UNCHANGED."

Underlying the avalanche of verbiage surrounding the prisoner abuse scandal is the core question: Can the US Armed Forces credibly investigate themselves? Have they ever?

John Stuart Blackton, a retired senior US Foreign Service officer and a veteran of Army service in Southeast Asia, writing in the Washington Post, takes us back to Vietnam War days, and an earlier White House under Lyndon Johnson. “In that war”, he writes, “the decision was made to employ the full powers of the commander in chief to buttress and reinforce the Geneva Conventions and the criminal sanctions under the US Code that followed from these conventions.”

But, he says, “Far more attention was paid in Vietnam than in Iraq to ensuring an environment in which every American combatant understood the basic rules of the Geneva Conventions. These principles were part of universal military training, reinforced by the chain of command in the field and largely, although certainly not universally, adhered to by the troops. “

A request from the International Red Cross in December 1964 to the U.S. and Vietnamese governments led in 1965 to “a joint US-Vietnamese military committee to work out details on the application of the Geneva Conventions in Vietnam.”

Blackton adds: “Every draftee and volunteer was given, during basic training, mandatory instruction in the principles of the conventions. Soldiers were tested on that training, and the results were recorded in their personnel jackets…Every soldier also received a plastic pocket card bearing the signature of our commander in chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was headed ‘The Enemy in Your Hands’ and summarized the conventions in simple, clear language. Item No. 3, ‘MISTREATMENT OF ANY CAPTIVE IS A CRIMINAL OFFENSE. EVERY SOLDIER IS PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ENEMY IN HIS HANDS’ was followed by this unambiguous guidance: "It is both dishonorable and foolish to mistreat a captive. It is also a punishable offense. Not even a beaten enemy will surrender if he knows his captors will torture or kill him. He will resist and make his capture more costly. Fair treatment of captives encourages the enemy to surrender."

There can be no doubt that there were American abuses in Vietnam, both in combat and in the handling of prisoners. The ‘My Lai Massacre’ is, of course, the best remembered of that era. It happened in combat on March 16, 1968, when a US Army company, under the command of Lt. William Calley, attacked the small hamlet of My Lai, which they were told was an enemy stronghold. A post-battle report said the mission was a complete success by body count standards: 128 Vietnamese killed. One detail stood out, however. Only three rifles and 10 hand grenades were seized from what should have been a significant enemy encampment.

Cover-up of the massacre began immediately. Reports on the My Lai operation said it was a stunning victory against a Viet Cong stronghold. Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper, applauded the courage of the American soldiers who had risked their lives. General William Westmoreland, US commander in Viet Nam, sent a personal congratulatory note to the responsible company. An initial investigation into the incident was swift and definitive: My Lai was a combat operation in which twenty civilians had accidentally been killed.

But too many soldiers knew what had really happened. Thanks to one of them, the news eventually reached Congressman Morris Udall, the Defense Department, and President Nixon. General Westmoreland ordered an immediate inquiry. The Army’s investigations uncovered the horror of My Lai, as well as the killing of hundreds of civilians by other army units at My Khe and Co Luy. Details of the investigations were leaked to the press. An interview with Lt. Calley by then freelance reporter Seymour Hersh – whose reporting for The New Yorker broke the Abu Ghraib story -- put My Lai on the front pages of American newspapers.

The Army’s investigation found that the My Lai massacre resulted from faulty leadership, that there was a massive cover-up, and that most American soldiers were poorly trained in the rules of war. Twenty-five officers and enlisted men, including Lt. Calley and his superior officer, Capt. Medina, were eventually charged with crimes, but only six cases were ever tried, notwithstanding that in some cases, the defendants admitted killing civilians. In the end, only one soldier, Lt. William Calley, was found guilty of the murder of more than 100 Vietnamese civilians.

So the question of whether the Defense Department is capable of investigating itself remains a mixed picture. Judging from the investigations that are unclassified, it appears that they work best when they are demanded by Congress or when abuses are uncovered and reported by the press. But based on what we have learned from the Defense Department thus far, it appears that not even the media and Congressional firestorm over Abu Ghraib and similar prisoner abuses may be enough.

This is the view of Reed Brody, special counsel to Human Rights Watch. He notes that “It has now been three months since the appearance of the first pictures of US soldiers humiliating and torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Shortly after the photos came out, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told foreign leaders: ‘Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing.’ But America is not doing the right thing. The photos were followed by revelations that the use of illegal, coercive interrogation methods on detainees had been approved at the highest levels of government, and by evidence that abuse of detainees was widespread in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet only a few low-ranking soldiers have been called to account, and the administration is sticking to its line that the Abu Ghraib crimes were the work of a few ‘bad apples’."

Given the checkered history of Defense Department investigations of itself, there is a compelling case for a truly independent, bipartisan approach by a body much like the 9/11 Commission. This will surely be resisted by President Bush, who initially resisted the idea of the 9/11 Commission, and by virtually everyone at the Pentagon and the CIA. But such a commission may be the only way the American people – and the world – will learn the full extent of the abuses and be able to demand action to keep them from happening again.

Sunday, August 01, 2004


By William Fisher

In the Middle East, television media channels are becoming as ubiquitous as hubbly-bubblies. Once populated only by government-owned and controlled outlets, the Middle East landscape is now crowded with 24-hour satellite channels like Al Jazeera, Al Aribiya, Al Hurra, CNN, the BBC, and various country-specific satellite stations (many still controlled by governments). The area’s hunger for news is also beginning to be fed by online news via the Internet, where most of the world’s newspapers – and an exponentially growing number of ‘blogs’, or web logs – are available.

And so it is in the United States. In America, which has more than 1,500 daily newspapers as well as countless weeklies and radio stations, television is still the public’s prime source of news. The architecture of the US television news business, however, is in at least two respects, different from that of the Middle East. First, there are no government-controlled stations. A US Government agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), regulates the airwaves, but does not own any of them. Second, America has the phenomenon of ‘local stations’, unknown in most of the Middle East. Most local stations are affiliated with one of the big US networks, like CBS, NBC, or ABC, and use the major networks for their national and international content.

But their uniqueness is that they broadcast content specific to a city or town or region. The analog in the Middle East would be a TV station located in, and dedicated to, broadcasting information from and about, say, Cairo, or Beirut, or Jeddah. Local television in the US broadcasts music, entertainment, calendars of events, talk shows, news, and advertising, relating exclusively to the community in which they’re located.

Broadcast TV stations in the US, including local stations, don’t pay the government for use of the airwaves; the airwaves belong to ‘the public’. But in exchange for this highly profitable access to viewers – and their advertisers’ access to customers – the FCC is mandated to demand full, fair and responsible coverage of local news.

Local news becomes particularly important in elections years, and not only Presidential elections years. On an American election day in any year, voters in thousands of communities cast ballots for town councils, county commissioners, school board members, judges, sheriffs, state legislators, US congress, and much more.

Local television stations are supposed to present the issues and the candidates as part of their public responsibility. But there is mounting evidence that they are failing to live up to that responsibility, and increasing criticism of the FCC for not monitoring these stations and what they’re broadcasting.

In this US election year, much is being written and spoken about how poorly informed the US electorate is. If that’s true, one reason is ‘local TV news’. Viewers are unlikely to become political pundits by watching it.

Here are some of the findings of a local TV news study of the 2002 election reported last month by the Norman Lear Center, a research and public policy center at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California:

Almost six out of ten top-rated local news broadcasts contained no campaign coverage whatsoever.

Most of the local campaign stories that did air were broadcast during the last two weeks of the campaign.

Nearly half the local political stories were about horserace or strategy, and not about issues.

The average local campaign story lasted less than 90 seconds.

Fewer than three out of ten local campaign stories that aired included candidates speaking, and when they did speak, the average candidate sound bite was 12 seconds long.

Campaign ads outnumbered campaign stories by nearly four to one.

The Lear Center collected top-rated early- and late-evening half-hours of news from a scientific sample of 122 stations in the top 50 U.S. markets. It analyzed more than 10,000 news broadcasts that aired during the last seven weeks of the 2002 campaign.

These findings are supported by many others, including a five-year study of local television by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That study found:

The No. 1 topic on local television news is crime. Over the study’s five years, 24 percent of all stories were about crime - ranging from a high of 26 percent in 2002 to a low of 19 percent in 2000. Crime stories led the local newscasts. The 2,400 newscasts studied found that 39 percent were crime stories, while 13 percent were about disasters or severe weather, and 9 percent were about a fairly routine fire or accident, for a total of 61 percent.

The No. 2 top stories are about accidents, bizarre events, fires and catastrophes, accounting for 12 percent. Taken together, crime, fire accidents and disasters made up 36 percent of all stories.

The next most popular topics are human-interest stories and politics, which each accounted for 10 percent of stories. But of the political stories, most dealt with state races and relatively few were about local politics.

The tragedy of 9/11 did force local TV stations to become more international – but just a bit. Over the first four years of the study, foreign affairs and defense amounted to just four percent of stories. This year, coverage of those topics rose to nine percent – during the heaviest fighting of the Afghanistan war. Reporting on politics, government and public policy (nine percent) did not increase, despite the political dimension of the war on terrorism.

Nor did homeland security get much attention either. Issues such as airport baggage checks and the threat of bioterrorism accounted for just one percent of the stories. There was as much coverage of missing children as there was of local homeland defense.

According to Martin Kaplan, director of the Lear Center, back in 1998, the Gore Commission proposed voluntary standards for local TV news. “After years of deliberation, it urged stations to air at least five minutes of candidate-centered discourse a night on each night in the month before the election. How well did it work? In the 2000 election, we studied 74 stations in 58 markets. Rather than five minutes of candidate discourse a night, the average station ran 74 seconds.”

Kaplan urged the FCC to adopt “explicit standards of performance” for local news stations, which “promise to fulfill a public interest obligation in order to get their license”. Then, he said, “we need a way to know if stations actually meet those obligations, and a way to link stations’ performance on the public interest obligation with the renewal of their licenses.”

Industry sources report that more and more people who are watching television are now watching things other than local news. Yet even with a declining audience and a sluggish economy, local television remains consistently profitable. And news is responsible for a disproportionate amount of a station's income -- 16 percent of a typical station's programming each day, but roughly 40 percent of its revenue.

The ‘why’ of this sorry state of affairs is long and complicated -- certainly media consolidation is one factor, but only one of many.

Len Downie Jr. and Bob Kaiser of The Washington Post are among many others examining this issue. Their view: “If most newspapers have done poorly, local television stations have been worse. Typically, local stations provide little real news, no matter how many hours they devote to "news" programs. Their reporting staffs are dramatically smaller than even the staffs of shrunken newspapers in the same cities. The television stations have attracted viewers-and the advertising that rewards their owners with extraordinary profits-with the melodrama, violence and entertainment of "action news" formulas, the frivolity of "happy talk" among their anchors and the technological gimmicks of computer graphics and "live" remote broadcasting.”

And broadcasting analyst John McManus, in an article entitled “Do Television and Politics Mix?” writes: “To be fair, stations under economic pressures to maximize profit can make more money doing stories other than politics, even at this time of year. Despite the hoopla of a presidential election, roughly half of eligible Americans don’t bother to vote and presumably aren’t interested in political stories. Because you can’t ignore a long political story in favor of something you find more interesting—as you can in a newspaper—those bored by politics switch channels, thus penalizing the station.

“Stories the stations emphasized — the flaming crash of an airliner in Taiwan, the cute little feature about the Lawrence Livermore Labs doing research on something so prosaic as grilling burgers, Channel 7’s “x-ray” camera looking through the skirts of young women — all have a powerful human-interest appeal, through life and death drama, oddity, or titillation. In other words, they “sell” well.

“Television clearly pays a greater price in profits than newspapers for coverage that doesn’t turn the heads of as many as possible. But the role of news isn’t to rubber neck for as big an audience as possible. It’s to help as many as possible understand the world around them.

“Just before an election the public need is greatest for intense, independent reporting on how billions of dollars of our money shall be spent and who shall lead our nation, our state, county, city, even police departments and schools. Political coverage is a litmus test of the civic responsibility of our news media. Given the extraordinary profits local stations earn—the industry average for large market affiliate stations is about four times that of the average U.S.
firm—and the bonanza that political advertising represents, one might expect at least a tie between journalism ethics and the demands of Wall Street.”

What is important in terms of the upcoming election is for Americans to remember that local television stations operate on airwaves given to them by the US taxpayers. With that gift goes a responsibility to inform the public. The Federal Communications Commission and the Congress need to take whatever steps are required to insure that this responsibility is taken seriously, and that owners of local TV stations are held accountable.