Thursday, September 14, 2006

Editorial: U.S. only hurts itself by paying journalists

Cynicism proved correct in Cuba; was wrong in Sudan.

Published: September 12, 2006

Two weekend stories, tucked inside the nation's news pages amid a flood of news, analysis and features about the 9/11 anniversary, demonstrate once more how important it is for the U.S. government to act within the principles and values it espouses worldwide. Indeed, these seemingly unrelated stories -- one from Sudan, one from Miami -- show how mixing U.S. propaganda with journalism can have life or death impacts.

Let's start with Miami. Through a Freedom of Information request, the Miami Herald Media Co. learned that two of its journalists and a freelancer who wrote for its Spanish-language paper, El Nuevo Herald, were among 10 Miami journalists who have been paid by the U.S. government for doing broadcasts on Radio and TV Marti, American propaganda stations aimed at Cuban citizens. One was paid nearly $175,000 since 2001, the Herald reported.

The Herald immediately, and correctly, fired the staffers and severed its relationship with the freelancer. Any reporter should know that you can't do American-style journalism and government propaganda at the same time.

But what about the government's response? Pedro Roig, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which runs Radio and TV Marti, said he was "very satisfied" with the practice of hiring Cuban exile journalists as "contractors," and that it was each journalist's responsibility to follow his or her own ethics.

This response shows shortsighted, even dangerous thinking, because using mainstream journalists instead of government employees not only creates a journalistic conflict of interest but also furthers the too-common notion abroad that American reporters are actually CIA plants or otherwise working for the government.

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who has frequently charged that some Miami journalists were paid by the U.S. government, questioned one of the newly unmasked TV Marti reporters to that effect just two months ago. At an appearance in Argentina, Miami Channel 41 TV reporter Juan Manuel Cao asked Castro a pointed question, and Castro yelled back, "Who pays you?" In fact, TV Marti paid Cao $11,000 this year.

It's hard to maintain the high ground when Fidel Castro is proven correct in his cynicism. That does concrete damage to both U.S. government credibility and that of mainstream media. But let's go to the related story of the weekend, one that had a very scary plot before its happy ending -- and one that shows a serious long-term effect of such practices.

On Aug. 6, Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter who'd gone to Sudan on a legitimate assignment for National Geographic while on leave from the Chicago Tribune, was arrested in Darfur, along with his driver and translator. They were charged with espionage, printing "false news" and other criminal charges.

It took weeks of negotiations and the involvement of everyone from the State Department to U2 singer Bono and several journalism organizations to free the three. Ultimately it was the contacts and skills of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who met with Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, that secured their release on Saturday.

Richardson was able to persuade al-Bashir that Salopek wasn't an agent of the government. But the next such negotiation will be harder because the Bush administration has been caught paying real journalists -- in Miami, in Iraq, even in Washington -- to tell its story.

The administration speaks constantly about American values and what Americans stand for. Well, the separation of government and the press is bedrock. If the government feels it needs to issue propaganda, it must leave the press out of it.

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