Log Cabin Chronicles

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris Braithwaite publishes the Barton Chronicle, arguably the finest community newspaper in Vermont.]

Prostituting the press

Barton, Vermont

National Public Radio reported recently that, after a woman from the Iraqi town of Dujail testified that she was stripped naked and terrorized at Abu Ghraib prison by the minions of Saddam Hussein, one of the defense lawyers in Saddam's trial had only two questions for her:

Were there dogs?

Did they take pictures?

The lawyer got the negative answers he expected and sat down. But the implication was clear:

Is life in Iraq really so different, now that the Americans are in charge?

The answer is less important than the fact that the question could be asked. This is a show trial, and what matters beyond bringing a murderous dictator to justice is its effect on public opinion around the world - the Muslim world in particular.

The lawyer's questions were a cunning reminder that we have already lost the second half of the argument. Iraq is no longer a Hollywood battleground between the values of American democracy and the depredations of a murderous dictator. The difference is, after all, only a matter of degree.

Yet the chief official justification for invading Iraq was to bring the benefits of democracy to a totalitarian state.

We are a little embarrassed to say that we believed President Bush was serious when he said that. We thought it was a childishly nave reason to embark on a hopeless war. But we thought he was sincere.

Now we have reports that a contractor for the U.S. Army is using our money to place articles in Iraqi newspapers that support and justify our presence there.

This may seem pretty small time, compared to the torture of Iraqis by U.S. servicemen and women; and compared to the loss of more than 2000 American lives and many more Iraqi lives.

But it raises the same question as the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

If we are prepared to violate the best traditions of our own democracy to win the war in Iraq, then what is the point of our being there?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been an extensive and quite expensive effort to help "emerging democracies" develop the sorts of institutions that make for a stable and reasonably equitable social order.

Part of that effort has involved media development, a field we've worked in, on and off, since 1997.

The idea is simple enough and, in the democratic west, hardly controversial: a free and independent press is essential to a free society.

It has turned out to be a tough assignment. And among the most intractable problems one encounters in all sorts of places is "the envelope."

This is a polite euphemism for a bribe - a modest payment from the source of a favorable story to the journalist who will write it, and perhaps to the editor who will run it.

It's a hard habit to break because it's embedded in the economy of the business in so many poor countries. Newspapers don't make much money, so they can't pay their reporters much money, and they come to depend on the envelope to put food on the table and clothes on the kids.

It's also a circular problem. Newspapers that sell their editorial space to the highest bidders aren't any good. People don't read them, so advertisers don't bother with them, so they don't make much money so they can't pay reporters a living wage, so

You get the idea.

The hideously misnamed Lincoln Group, the Washington-based company hired by our Army to provide media services in Iraq, apparently figured all this out.

According to the Los Angeles Times, it got favorable (to our side) stories into Iraqi newspapers by paying for them.

And so it goes. To win the war for democracy we prostitute an institution that is essential to any democracy.

A small problem, perhaps, in a large and growing catastrophe. But one more sign, surely, of how hopelessly we have lost our way.


Copyright © 2005 Chris Braithwaite/Barton Chronicle/12.05