Where journalists still get respect

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PANAMA CITY, July 21, 1999 — Investigative reporter Gustavo Gorriti, an ICIJ member and associate director of La Prensa in Panama, published the following op-ed in The New York Times, July 21, 1998. It is reprinted here with permission.

From afar, the recent spate of journalistic embarrassments in the United States suggests that something more disheartening is at work than an epidemic of editors falling asleep at the wheel.

The recent string of abject apologies by The New Republic, Time, CNN, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Boston Globe (which is owned by The New York Times Company) can only add to the extremely low regard that the American public has for journalists. In one recent poll, they even ranked below lawyers (and ahead of only labor union leaders) in the contempt they inspire.

This antipathy for journalists is in striking contrast to the standing journalists enjoy in Latin America. Opinion polls here consistently rate the press almost as high as the Roman Catholic Church. In both Argentina and Peru, where journalists have a contentious relationship with the ruling regimes, the press ranks first among all institutions.

It is all the more remarkable because most Latin American countries lack a mainstream press bound by the common standards of independent news-gathering, fact-checking, writing and editing upheld by much of the American press. It is hard to speak of the Fourth Estate in Latin America, where far too many reporters earn rotten salaries, where bribery of journalists is all too frequent and where newspaper owners, rather than editors, often decide the content of news articles.

But while many Latin American journalists fail to meet normal professional standards, others heroically surpass them, often providing the only check against governmental abuse of power.

Although Latin America has made the transition from military to freely elected regimes, many of these are cosmetic democracies in which critical features of truly democratic government remain undeveloped or non-existent.

The idea of accountability, for instance, is of little concern to the majority of Latin leaders, some of whom served dictatorships in the past. Yesterday’s advocate of nationalization is often recycled as today’s apostle of privatization. A number of them remain consistent, however, in carrying out policies from which they profit financially.

Since other institutions — the courts and the legislature — bow to the executive branch, it is left to the press to give an accurate record of what is really going on in the highest reaches of government.

Muckraking reporters have exposed corruption in high places, causing, among other things, the impeachment of two presidents (Collor de Mello of Brazil and Carlos Andrés Pérez of Venezuela), and provided unsettling revelations about several other current and former leaders, like Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Carlos Saúl Menem of Argentina, Ernesto Samper of Colombia and Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico.

For most Latin Americans, who feel both disgust and impotence in the face of corruption, this candid reporting has brought a measure of vindication. Even though these investigations are the doing of relatively few journalists, the public’s gratitude extends to the profession as a whole.

But this kind of reporting can exact a heavy price. According to Attacks on the Press, the annual report of the Committee to Protect Journalists, 10 of the 26 journalists killed worldwide last year were slain in Latin America.

Latin America is still the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist, Joel Simon, the committee’s Americas program coordinator, points out.

There are other forms of reprisal, too, like pseudo-legal prosecutions. In Argentina, President Menem not only has sued Horacio Verbitsky, a respected journalist, but has also called him a terrorist. Undeterred, Mr. Verbitsky has persisted in documenting case after case of malfeasance in high places.

The confrontation between the independent press and the Fujimori Government in Peru has been even more dramatic. When Baruch Ivcher, the Israeli-born owner of a television station, began to broadcast investigative reports of high-level thievery, corruption, torture and murder, he was promptly stripped of both his station and his Peruvian citizenship.

The Fujimori regime has also tried to frighten, discredit and attack some of the best independent journalists, most recently in the pages of the Government-subsidized tabloid press in Lima. The journalists are accused, outlandishly, of being traitors to the fatherland and of being complicitous with the Shining Path guerrillas. In Peru, each of these accusations alone can place someone in very real danger. Together, they can be deadly.

Yet none of the journalists thus threatened have been cowed. With strong support from international organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Peruvian reporters and editors like Fernando Rospigliosi and ángel Páez have continued to do their work.

It is not hard to understand, then, why Latin journalists, unlike their American counterparts, are held in such high esteem by their countrymen.

Still, the Latin American journalists of my generation, those who began writing investigative articles in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, admired the American press. We had, to be sure, our own crusading journalistic tradition, molded in the European ethos of Zola’s J’Accuse. But the influence of American journalism was decisive. Its principles of thoroughness, fact-checking, editing, the effective separation between editors and publishers — all this influenced us profoundly.

Given these standards, we can scarcely fathom the recent journalistic wreckage in the United States. How did competence and integrity dissipate in so many American newsrooms?

It hasn’t helped that conglomerates have been swallowing up newspapers and magazines. Business or managerial promiscuity can lead to conceptual promiscuity. You have, for instance, scenes of CNN reporters appearing in movies; then CNN news reports look like movies, sacrificing accuracy for cinematic flourishes. The rush to present impact news’ distorts journalistic priorities, as the Starr-Tripp-Lewinsky feeding frenzy illustrates so well. The relentless greed for prizes has also compromised editorial and fact-checking standards.

Latin American journalists learned much from Watergate-era American journalism. But the lessons of today’s journalism have mostly been the wrong ones.

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