Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Reuters and CYA journalism: the mystery of the disappearing terrorists

Now that Reutergate has caught our attention, it's informative to look at certain other questionable aspects of Reuters policy.

For example, Reuters is famous for refusing to use the word "terrorist" in its copy or headlines.

Two years ago, Reuters made an amazing admission about this practice. I missed it at the time, but now it takes on greater significance. I had always thought that the failure of Reuters to use the "t" word was based on some abstract principle of "innocent till proven guilty," combined with an incomprehensible bias in favor of those in the Mideast with grievances against the West.

But it turns out I was wrong. Reuters's motivations are not even that lofty. They could best be described under the general rubric "CYA."

Oh, but let me present it in Reuters's own words--that is, the words of Reuter's managing editor David A. Schlesinger. Back in September of 2004 when CanWest, the owners of a large Canadian newspaper chain, decided to substitute "terrorists" for "militants" in Reuters's mealy-mouthed articles, Schlesinger said CanWest would be required to remove the Reuters label from such demonizing pieces:

"Our editorial policy is that we don't use emotive words when labeling someone," said David A. Schlesinger, Reuters' global managing editor. "Any paper can change copy and do whatever they want. But if a paper wants to change our copy that way, we would be more comfortable if they remove the byline."

Mr. Schlesinger said he was concerned that changes like those made at CanWest could lead to "confusion" about what Reuters is reporting and possibly endanger its reporters in volatile areas or situations.

"My goal is to protect our reporters and protect our editorial integrity," he said.

So, it's Eason Jordan all over again. The words "editorial integrity" used to mean telling the truth; at least I thought so. But truth? Fahgetabout it, says Reuters. What does matter, instead? Press access: Reuters's ability to bring you all the news that's not fit to print.

How has it come to this? Oh, believe me, I understand the need for journalists to live to write another day. But if telling the truth is too dangerous, then it's time to get out and tell it from another place.

Because you've outlived your usefulness as journalists if you compromise that much. You've become the tools of terrorists--and I doubt even Mr. Schlesinger had that particular goal in mind when he chose his profession.

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