Practicing journalism in a smaller, riskier world

Practicing journalism in a smaller, riskier world

By Frank Smyth

                I’m old enough to have handled Moveable type — long, rectangular pieces of steel or lead with a letter, character, number, punctuation mark or space forged at one end. In 1976, at 15, I had a part-time job as a letterpress clerk at my hometown weekly. I worked the metal pieces of type into clamped blocks to fit into a letterpress machine. It sat in the basement near the newer, bigger printing presses that inked the newspaper. My old machine was about 5 feet tall and weighed maybe a ton. Each time I pulled down its handle, it inked out onto an envelope the mailing address of a college student or someone else who still wanted to read the town paper even though they lived out of town.

                I’m young enough to have never used anything but a computer to file from overseas. Nearly every foreign correspondent by 1988 used a Tandy 200 from Radio Shack. A laptop before anybody coined the term. It had no hard drive and only 24 Kilobytes of RAM –just enough to save one story at a time. There was no Internet. The Tandys had a built-in modem with settings for pulse or tone that we used to direct dial a newspaper’s main frame computer. Pulse was about the only setting that worked abroad. You had to pay out of pocket and hope to get reimbursed later for long distance calls, and you had to exactly match the settings of stop bits, character bits, and parity each time to get in.

                Printing presses inked out text in different written languages for over a 1,000 years, and, in more recent centuries, gave rise to the term we still use for news outlets: the press. Computers have been around for about 30 years, and they have revolutionized the world of news and information. The craft of journalism is the same: attempting to verify information before reporting it, being transparent about what could and could not be verified, and providing context. But many other things are different.

                Technology has made the impact of reporting and other communications more immediate. Earlier this year, Egyptian police and militia detained or attacked foreign correspondents from every conceivable outlet. Before he fell, President Hosni Mubarak tried to literally unplug Egypt, shutting down satellite connections, cell phone service and the Internet. Back in the 1960s it took at least a few days for film shot in Vietnam to be flown to New York, developed and broadcast. Now what may be a fresh report to the public back home may serve as a real-time intelligence report to combatants.

                The public perception of journalists has changed, too. At home Americans have steadily lost respect for journalists over the past quarter century. Little more than a quarter of Americans say news organizations get their facts right, and about 60 percent say they are biased. Overseas actors of all kinds have grown increasingly hostile to journalists. Back in the 1980s in Central America journalists routinely wrote TV in large letters in masking tape on their vehicles to help deter attacks. Today few journalists would be so bold to do so in almost any region of the world.

                Many journalists in the past also operated with the sense that they were journalists first. But in recent years many journalists have been targeted over their nationality, ethnicity or religion. Everyone knows the case of then-Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl. But Western journalists comprise only a relative handful of all journalists killed anywhere around the world. Atwar Bahjat was an Iraqi correspondent for Al Jazeera and later Al-Arabiya, based in Doha and Dubai, respectively. In 2006, Bahjat and her TV crew were reporting at a major Shi’ite shrine right after it was bombed. Gunmen in a white car arrived on the scene demanding to know the whereabouts of the on-air correspondent. Her remains and those of two crew members were found the following day bearing signs of torture.

                One’s nationality, in particular, can be a two-way street. Stephen Farrell is a British national working for The New York Times. In 2009 he and an Afghani journalist working as his fixer, Sultan Munadi, were captured by Taliban combatants. (Hostage takers, too, have learned how to Google to glean information about their captors.) British authorities told Farrell’s family member and New York Times editors that they were weighing options before ordering British special forces to mount a surprise rescue operation. U.K. authorities said they did so to try and save the one British national. U.K. soldiers rescued Farrell but the Afghani journalist Munadi was killed along with an Afghani woman and one British soldier. This and other cases show how hard it is for journalists to maintain that they are journalists first anymore.

                But one thing has stayed the same. Local journalists continue to be, and have long been the journalists most at risk. Nearly 90 percent of journalists killed around the world are killed within the borders of their own nation. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya repeatedly exposed human rights abuses before she was shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building. The Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga criticized his own government and foretold his own death before eight helmeted men on four motorcycles beat him with iron bars and wooden poles. He died a few hours later.

                Consider these two rarely reported facts: A local journalist is murdered somewhere around the world at least once every 11 day; the murderers get away with it in nearly nine out of 10 cases. Journalists tend to be violently attacked in open states or nations that are at least nominally democratic. They include Iraq, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.  Here’s another underreported statistic: Government officials of one kind or another have killed nearly as many journalists as have terrorist groups and other armed rebel forces, according to research by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, from which other data here not otherwise attributed is taken.

                In closed societies or nations run by a single political party or another absolute entity, outright censorship and imprisonment of journalists is common. Iran, China, Eritrea and Burma each top the latest list with the most journalists in jail. About half of them are behind bars on anti-state charges like terrorist collaboration, espionage, or propagandizing against the state.

                Two more trends reflect other new changes in news and information. More online journalists are behind bars today than either print or broadcast journalists, and nearly half of all the journalists languishing in jails around the world are also freelancers.

                At the same time, wars remain dangerous beats to cover. Many journalists have been killed or injured on the battlefield. More than 200 journalists and media workers have been killed or injured in Iraq alone since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Fire from U.S. military forces killed 16 journalists among them. That figure also includes two Iraqi photojournalists working for Reuters killed in a helicopter attack firing in an area that included armed men. The U.S. military’s own video of the attack later surfaced on the anti-secrecy information network WikiLeaks. The video showed the helicopter killing or critically injuring other civilians, including children.

                Sexual assaults and rapes of female journalists is another concern that has recently been brought to light. The sustained sexual assault of CBS Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo during anti-government protests in Egypt shocked many observers, but some were less surprised.

                Women who are veteran journalists came forward one after another detailing their own experiences with groping and more severe sexual assaults by crowds of men in different nations.

                Technology has no doubt made the world a smaller place. But it is one at least as dangerous, if not more so, than before.  “Why then do we do it?” asked Sri Lanka’s Wickramatunga, a husband and father of three children, shortly before his own murder. “But there is a calling,” he answered, “that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”


Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist and the journalist security coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Smyth’s clips are at Visit CPJ at

This piece originally appeared in the Montana Journalism Review, Vol. 40, Summer 2011

Box of Pain

What does the Grateful Dead, America’s most popular live musical act, a band whose devoted following helped it sell 1.8 million concert tickets and gross $47 million last year, have to do with mandatory minimums? Quite a bit.

Five years ago, no more than 100 Deadheads were believed to have been in jail. But today, up to 2,000 fans are in state or federal prisons, serving prison sentences as long as half, equal to or even double their age. Why? They are victims of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which routinely give small-time drug offenders — with no history of violence — longer prison terms than felons convicted of the most heinous crimes.

Take Deadhead Fred Anderson, who is serving eight years and nine months without parole. If Anderson had tried to kill a man, raped a woman, kidnapped a child, held up a liquor store or stolen $80 million or more, he would be spending less time in jail. Anderson’s crime? In 1989, as a 32-year-old college student, he sold his brother-in-law Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD). Anderson’s incarceration comes at a minimum total cost of $150,000 to taxpayers. Worse, it comes at the expense of prison space that could go to violent criminals: nonviolent inmates like Anderson now comprise 21.5 percent of all federal prisoners. Unlike Anderson, however, more than two-thirds of incarcerated Deadheads are in their late teens or 20s.

Dead fans and their families have joined in the fight against mandatory minimums. Magazines that cater to Deadheads, such as Relix, with a circulation of 50,000, and Dupree’s Diamond News, its smaller rival, routinely publish letters from prisoners. Deadhead inmates produce newsletters such as U.S. Blues and Midnight Special. The Dead community, it seems, is doing all it can. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the band.

If the Grateful Dead were apolitical, its lack of involvement would come as no surprise. But it isn’t. Band members have held benefit concerts, donated album proceeds, collectively presided over single-issue press conferences and routinely granted interviews to talk about other (less controversial) political concerns, such as the environment and rain forest preservation. A few years ago, for example, co-lead guitarist Bob Weir wrote an article for The New York Times op-ed page about preserving Montana’s wilderness.

Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally declined to explain this apparent inconsistency. But it looks like the band is trying to deny its own association with drugs. The Grateful Dead were pioneers with LSD in the 60s. Band members talked (and sang) about their own drug use with “reckless frankness,” says McNally. Their hallucinogenic antics were chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In addition to being America’s longest-running and most successful band, the Dead is the most influential progenitor of psychedelic rock.

But you wouldn’t know that from what band members say now. The Grateful Dead publicly discourage illegal drug use at its concerts. Even the band’s philanthropic donations appear to be driven by the same concern. In 1992 and 1993 the Grateful Dead, through its Rex Foundation, gave $10,000 each year to the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. While that sum is not insignificant for FAMM, it is pocket change for the Rex Foundation, which last year gave away nearly $1 million. Rex gives standard grants of $10,000 to dozens of ecological and social causes. Although the band finally made a statement about mandatory minimums at its inauguration to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in January, it has nonetheless decided not to make a more significant contribution to this cause — the only one that directly affects its followers.

What the Grateful Dead and others who inhaled have lost sight of is that the debate now has less to do with appearing to condone drug use than with fairness. Last fall, an American Bar Association poll found that 90 percent of federal judges are against mandatory sentencing laws. In February, The New York Times editorial page lambasted “the nation’s foolish sentencing policies,” adding that we should “expect more courage” from the attorney general and the administration. Many Deadheads expect more courage from the band. (Others have gone through wild intellectual contortions to explain the Dead’s noninvolvement. Dupree’s has received letters claiming that band members “are being forced, with the threat of their own incarceration, to keep touring, so the Feds can keep filling their bust quotas.”)

Having contributed to the popularity of psychedelics, the Grateful Dead has the money to make a difference. It also has the influence. No band has a more devoted following among Washington’s elite: John Kerry and Al Gore, among others, go to Dead shows; president-elect Bill Clinton invited the group to perform at his inauguration. How long will it be before the Grateful Dead puts its money where its music is?