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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 27, 2002

For journalists, patriotism isn't about being uncritical

 •  North Korea's revelation no surprise to journalists

By John Griffin

I have long maintained that the most patriotic thing an American journalist can do is not be too patriotic.

And that's not easy.

For one thing, as individuals and as a society, we have natural feelings of patriotism. They are heightened in times of crisis, such as after 9/11 and echoing down to this day.

Journalists also face institutional pressures, most often from the government but also from others that include churches, social and racial groups.

An American general in Vietnam during the war put this most bluntly when he barked at an American correspondent who had asked a critical question: "Why don't you get on the team?"

The answer is that the correspondent was on the larger all-American team. His or her role in our society is to ask the critical questions and report to the people on the failures as well as successes. That's a higher standard of patriotism.

I thought of this sitting through parts of the recent 35th anniversary conference of the East-West Center's Jefferson Fellows, a program which brings together journalists from the United States and from Asia and the Pacific.

It struck me again how, despite the hassles they sometimes face from authorities, American journalists have it relatively easy at home. They are protected by the First Amendment, other laws and traditions, and a general feeling that, even in times of national crisis, news media have a legitimate role to play.

American foreign correspondents can have it tougher. Still, the murder of Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal in Pakistan was a relative rarity.

In contrast, local journalists in much of Asia and some Pacific islands walk a fine and sometimes dangerous line just trying to report news. More than 30 have been murdered in Southeast Asia in recent years.

Not only do they sometimes face repressive and vindictive governments, other hazards can include media owners with political agendas, legal harassment, wages so low they invite corruption and incompetence, and demonstrations and damage by mobs often rented for the occasion. Hundreds of news people have been threatened, arrested and jailed over the years.

Yes, there is still some "envelope journalism," payoffs by government or business officials made to reporters and editors for favorable stories. There's also a practice called "AC/DC" (which stands for Attack-Corrupt/Defend-Corrupt), under which journalists make up attacks on somebody and then demand payoffs for more favorable defensive stories.

Still, when working in Southeast Asia and since, I have always been impressed by the courage and evasive skills of many foreign journalists in the face of repression most American counterparts don't know.

So should American freedoms and other journalistic practices be a model for Asia and the Pacific? I asked at one conference session.

While our freedoms may be envied and emulated in some of the freer Southeast Asian countries (Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia), I think something different is likely.

"The American system can't work everywhere," said one American at the conference. Another talked about an evolving world journalism standard, a facet of globalization.

An Asian editor said he would welcome "global benchmarks." But he also noted that American journalism over 200-plus years has gone through stages of development. That, at times, it included envelopes, AC/DC practices, media owners with agendas and wild and biased reporting and editing. Asian nations — and degrees of journalistic freedom — are evolving at varying rates, he said.

And we have cultural differences. The war against terrorism has sidetracked the debate about Asian (emphasis on the group) vs. Western (stress on the individual) values. But different approaches remain, as well as different degrees of freedom.

One common denominator, it seems to me, is the need for journalists everywhere to subscribe to that higher standard of patriotism — to serve their readers and listeners with balance, basic fairness and, when possible, that most elusive of all commodities, the one called truth.

John Griffin, former editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages, is a frequent contributor.