Keynote Address by Paul E. Steiger

Printer-friendly versionSend by email I'm honored to be here tonight, and pleased to be able to share a few brief – I promise, brief! -- thougths about the critical work that OPC members do.

International reporting has always been a domain that requires high courage as well as high skill. But I think it's important that everyone here tonight pause to contemplate just how much tougher it is out there to do this important work.

Six years ago I stood before this group and, like Ali Fadeel tonight, lit a candle to honor a fallen journalist, in that case, Danny Pearl, who has just been murdered in Pakistan. Since then, 292 more journalists have been killed in the line of duty, an average of about 47 a year. As a reader and viewer, therefore – and even more as the chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is my moonlighting job – I'm deeply appreciative of what you do, and how challenging it often is to do it.

Being the managing editor of The Wall Street Journals for 16 years was a very rewarding role. I didn't worry very much, in part because I knew I had such talented people to work with. People like Marcus Brauchli.

One of the few things that did keep me up at night in the past few years, however, was worrying about the relatively small group of people that the Journal had posted in war zones, particularly in Iraq and certainly including our incredibly courageous Iraqi colleagues. The Iraqi staffers for American news organizations, by the way, are dying in heartbreaking numbers, and most of them never get a byling or a credit, much less an award here. So I want to take a moment to salute all of those, whether here tonight or not, whether American or Iraqi or other nationality, who currently or formerly reported or photographed from Iraq. We are in your debt, and those there now are in our prayers.

Of course, Iraq is not the only dangerous assignment. Reporters and photographers around the world operate these days at a time when an increasing number of national leaders appear to believe that intimidation and suppression of journalists is an important part of their political strategy.

I think it's useful, in this regard, to name names. Vladimir Putin in Russia has essentially seized personal control of national television, and has facilitated a political and legal climate in which journalists are murdered with impunity: 14 since he took office in 2000. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has also brought television in his country to heel. The ruling regimes in China and Cuba are neck and neck in terms of which country is jailing the most journalists in the world, with China the dubious leader, 22 to 25. Robert Mugabe's instictive reaction to the will of the Zimbabwean people – that he leave office – was to suppress the press reporting the story.

In this country, we are particularly blessed by the First Amendment, and a tradition of support for press freedom that stretches back to Franklin and Jefferson and Madison and beyond.

But I think we also need to acknowledge the fraying of the informal compact among the Executive Branch, the courts and the press that for many years made sure that leak inquiries, when undertaken in earnest, would center on the leakers themselves. In recent years, the Executive Branch – unable to police its own house – has turned on journalists in such cases, with the courts increasingly declining to stand up for free-press values.

Not all of our challenges, of course, come at the hands of governments. The markets, and particularly the market for our own products and services, have been far from hospitable in recent years, and the news seems only to be getting worse. The consequences have been particularly devestating for two kinds of reporting – invesitgative and international. Our mission at ProPublica, mandated by our principal funders Herb and Marion Sandler, is to hep redress this in the investigative arena. But the problems are at least as acute in international reporting, where the need for experimentation with business models is probably as great or greater.

What is the effect of these pressures? You know this sad story as well as I do: Newsmagazines are at least partially retreating from the sort of work we honor here tonight. Broadcast television networks, war coverage aside, have also retreated. Most distressing to me, given where I have spent my own career, there are now no more than a half-dozen daily newspapers in this country with a significant presence internationally, and it is relatively easy to foresee that number falling by half again in just the next few years.

This shriveling in the numbers of reporters sent overseas depresses me as I know it depresses you. We risk having an American population increasingly isolated from crucial knowledge about the world outside our borders. It is one thing to oppose expansion of trade, immigration and some other foreign contacts on reasoned grounds. George Washington himself warned against foreign entanglements. It is another to resist them out of xenophobia born of bad information, the kind that led to the passage of the Smoot Hawley Tariff in 1930 that, while it didn't by itself cause the Great Depression, certainly deepened and extended it.

Today's world requires much more knowledge about our near and distant neighbors than did the far less interconnected world of the 1930s. Decisions made in China and India, in Mexico and Colombia, in Russia and Europe, in the Middle East and Pakistan, in Japan and South Africa, the Congo and countless places in between, will affect our lives and the lives of our children as never before. And yet today, because we have less reporting from abroad when we need more, all three major candidates for president far too easily get away with spouting comic-book slogans about international issues, comic-book slogans that play shamelessly to the biases of their hoped-for constituencies.

This isn't to say that all is hopeless. Some non-profits, like the Pulitzer Center in Washington, are able to finance reporting forays around the world by qualified – if low-priced journalists. There is a growing movement to provide Web access for Americans to indigenous reporting, in English or translated into English, from more and more foreign countries, including the developing world. Most of this content is benign. Some is more controversial, such as that from the Al Jazeera English language service and Mr. Chavez's pan-Latin television channel. Whatever you think of such operations, they are changing the view of audiences here and abroad about key global issues and trends.

Of course, some publications, wire services and video networks continue to have overseas reporting as a crucial part of their DNA, and we should all be happy for that. I began tonight by thanking the individual journalists who have reported from Iraq. In this economic environment, I think it is also appropriate that we salute the news organizations that, in the face of a very human toll, as well as a huge financial cost, have maintained a strong reporting presence in Iraq, providing Americans with the information and analysis they need to exercise their own greatest responsibility as citizens in our democracy.

When the American people go to the polls in the general election, just a little more than six months from now, they will make a fateful policy choice, for Iraq, for America and likely for the world. Making it possible for that choice to be an informed one is the greatest gift that you and your colleagues could give us all.

In conclusion, it is not easy to do the work you do, and it is getting harder – harder and more dangerous and more lonely.

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