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On the trail: For Jeremy Scahill, journalism is all about being there

In Education

12:15 am on Mon, 11.18.13

Jeremy Scahill has made a career out of shattering conventional wisdom – whether it is the “official” version of what's happened in a warzone or the presiding opinion among journalists in Washington, D.C.

Jeremy Scahill was the keynote speaker UMSL's Ethics of Politics and the Press conference.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Beacon
Jeremy Scahill was the keynote speaker UMSL's Ethics of Politics and the Press conference.

As the keynote speaker at “Ethics of Politics and the Press,” a conference at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Scahill had one crucial piece of advice: Being there is essential to good journalism.

“That’s a challenge for the next generations of journalists,” Scahill said. “You’re all plugged into everything. They’re Tweeting and using Instagram and Facebook. I love Twitter. I think it’s an amazing tool. But you got to get away from your computer and get out into the real world again.

"You’ve got to get your fingers dirty other than just the dust of your keyboard,” he added.

Scahill cut his journalistic teeth covering some the world’s most dangerous countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen and the former Yugoslavia. His two best-selling books – "Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army" and "Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield" chronicled the murky underbelly of conflict.

Scahill’s speech last Thursday also touched on related topics, including the use of drones in military conflict, President Barack Obama's national security policies and the dominance of “info-tainment” in cable news.

For instance, Scahill detailed the hostile posture that Obama's administration is taking toward the press in the guise of national security. He called it a "radical undermining of the (press') historical role as a check against all three of those branches of government." 

"The message that's being sent out by this White House is: 'We only want you to publish information that we sanction and we don't want you talking with sources within the national security complex,'" Scahill said. "They don't actually want a vibrant and free press. They want there to be rules. And the first part of those rules is no classified information can be public and we have to approve what's actually being disseminated to the American people."

One way of preventing that, he said, is being there, where the action is.

Much of the reporting on the “Drone Wars” is done from Washington, D.C., he said.  But international journalists like himself often serve as “fact checkers” to the official government explanation.

“So they say ‘this night raid happened in a village in Afghanistan and we killed 12 Taliban facilitators.’ Or ‘we captured a senior Taliban militant.’ And what we discover when we go to these places is sometimes that’s what happened,” Scahill said. “But a lot of times we’ll go there and there’s a totally different story local people are telling. And had we not gone there, we wouldn’t get it.”

One example Scahill detailed in "Dirty Wars" was how bad intelligence led to U.S. forces killing an Afghan police commander fighting alongside the Americans. Three women, he said, were also killed, included two who were pregnant.

Instead of reporting that information up the chain of command, Scahill said, that fiasco was covered up to the point where Gen. Stanley McCrystal released a statement saying the people killed were in the Taliban.

“Only because journalists went there and interviewed the families and wouldn’t give up on it were we able to reveal it was in fact a U.S. operation that killed these people," and they were innocent, he said.

“The same is true of the Drone Wars,” he continued. “How many times a week do we hear in a little blip or something from the AP or Reuters that 11 militants were killed in Pakistan? Or five militants were killed in Yemen. How do we know they were militants? Who’s on the ground checking the facts?”

When the news media stop funding international reporting and the news report from the front lines is embedded journalism, “that ultimately frays away at the fabric of our process of democracy in this country,” said Scahill. (Terry Ganey – a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch who was embedded during the Iraq War in 2003 – made a similar point during an earlier panel on media bias.)

After all, Scahill said, “you think twice about writing something ultra-critical about the people you’re alongside because you actually see them as humans. And they may have saved you [butt] somewhere.”

Scahill observed hat some of the best American journalism in recent years happened after “horrid tragedies,” such as the Boston Marathon bombings or Newtown school shootings. That journalism was compelling, he said, because the victims’ lives “were given dignity and meaning.”

“That should be the standard for how our wars are covered,” Scahill said. “Not just from the perspective of the military, but that’s important. But also, who are the people on the other side of these missiles? Who are the suspected militants that we’re killing on any given day? What about the children who are orphaned in some of these strikes? If their humanity was respected in the same way that the humanity that the victims of these school shootings were, I think we’d have a different discussion in this country.”

Marooned in Jefferson City?

Scahill wasn’t the only speaker who talked about proximityand journalism.

From left: Former Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, Republican political consultant John Hancock, journalist Terry Ganey and KTVI reporter Charles Jaco participated in a panel at the conference about media bias. Among other things, Bray discussed how Jefferson City's remoteness impacted coverage.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Beacon
From left: Former Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, Republican political consultant John Hancock, journalist Terry Ganey and KTVI reporter Charles Jaco participated in a panel at the conference about media bias.

Former state Sen. Joan Bray – who worked in newspapers before politics – contended that some of Missouri's largest media markets are often underserved when it comes to coverage about state government and politics.

One reason? Bray -- a Democrat from University City -- noted Jefferson City is one of the more remote state capitals in the country. Getting to Jefferson City from St. Louis or Kansas City, she added, requires going off an interstate highway.

Bray, now the president of the Consumer Council of Missouri, added “the location does cause some issues when your population centers are on the edge of the state in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield.” Often, she said, she found "too much focus on what those crazy yokels in the middle of the state are doing.”

By contrast, Bray said that Mid-Missouri and rural Missouri often get much more extensive state government coverage. During her legislative tenure, she said, “there were little baby journalists all over,” a reference to how students from the University of Missouri-Columbia’s journalism school cover the General Assembly. (This reporter – along with many other state government reporters – was one of those “baby journalists,” toiling under Missouri Digital News’ Phill Brooks.)

“People are largely ignorant of the impact on state government on their lives,” she added. “Federal government’s always got so much attention – your congresspeople and the senators. By the time I got to the state capitol, there’s a lot of devolving of power and responsibility to state governments. But folks at home didn’t really know about that.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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