Thursday, July 14, 2005

Toasting Yost or Yost is toast -- that is the question

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:20 PM |  

[Update: When will they let the bulldog out?]

Seems my fellow “Right Brother” at the Pioneer Press Mark Yost raised some newsroom insurgency with his Tuesday column “Why they hate us.”

The headline isn't a prelude to a column justifying why the Islamists hate Westerners so much that they're pouring into Iraq to kill our soldiers (along with innocent fellow Arabs, including Egyptian diplomats). Or defending the sleeper cells planted to blow up Madrid, London and who knows where next. Rather, it's about why most Americans, particularly soldiers, hate the media.
It’s powerful column. Yost goes on to recount his own military experience in some of the world’s “hotspots” and contrast that experience with what he read in the press.

While sailing in the South China Sea, my ship picked up some refugee boat people on a rickety raft that I wouldn't take out on Como Lake, much less try to float across the Pacific Ocean. One of the survivors, shortly after coming up the accommodation ladder dripping wet, grabbed me (the nearest sailor), hugged me as tightly as his strength would allow, and could only murmur "thank you" through sobs of joy.

I'd then come back to the U.S. and read accounts of places I'd just been — in papers like the New York Times and Washington Post —that bore no resemblance to what I'd seen.
Bringing this issue full circle, he writes --

I'm reminded of why I became a journalist by the horribly slanted reporting coming out of Iraq. Not much has changed since the mid-1980s. Substitute "insurgent" for "Sandinista," "Iraq" for "Soviet Union," "Bush" for "Reagan" and "war on terror" for "Cold War," and the stories need little editing. The U.S. is "bad," our enemies "understandable" if not downright "good."

I know the reporting's bad because I know people in Iraq. A Marine colonel buddy just finished a stint overseeing the power grid. When's the last time you read a story about the progress being made on the power grid? Or the new desalination plant that just came on-line, or the school that just opened, or the Iraqi policeman who died doing something heroic? No, to judge by the dispatches, all the Iraqis do is stand outside markets and government buildings waiting to be blown up.

I also get unfiltered news from Iraq through an e-mail network of military friends who aren't so blinded by their own politics that they can't see the real good we're doing there. More important, they can see beyond their own navel and see the real good we're doing to promote peace and prosperity in the world. What makes this all the more ironic is the fact that the people who are fighting and dying want to stay and the people who are merely observers want to cut and run. . . .

And reporters wonder why they're despised.
Yost’s commentary has drawn national and extremely local counterattacks.

Following its publication, Yost's column appeared on Jim Romenesko's Poynteronline media web site and drew fire from a number of sources. Typical fare --

From BRADLEY K. MARTIN, Manship Chair in Journalism, Louisiana State University: For Mark Yost -- Why are so many polemicists who were trained on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, as you were, despised by reporters? As a former Asian Wall Street Journal news bureau chief in Tokyo (1983-86), I can tell you. It's because the wingnuts come ready made with opinions about every conceivable development. No need to do any reporting because, as long as they live and opine, they KNOW, thanks to their all-embracing ideology, precisely what's up.
Besides that logically compelling wingnut argument, Yost has also garnered the wrath of local Pioneer Press reporters in the form of an open letter emailed to the newsroom by Chuck Laszewski.

To Yost, or rather to the newsroom in general, after citing several examples of the courage of journalists in Iraq (which Yost never questioned) and citing examples of “positive” stories the paper has carried, Laszewski writes --

There is much more I could say, but let me end it this way. With your column, you have spat on the copy of the brave men and women who are doing their best in terrible conditions. More than 20 reporters have died in Iraq from around the world. You have insulted them and demeaned them, and to a much lesser degree, demeaned the reporters everywhere who have been threatened with bodily harm, who have been screamed at, or denied public records, just because they wanted to present the closest approximation to the truth they could.
I am embarrassed to call you my colleague.
Laszewski is one of two St. Paul Pioneer Press political reporters suspended after attending the Bruce Springsteen October 5 Vote for Change concert at the Xcel Energy Center. On September 27th Pioneer Press editor Vicki Gowler issued a memo advising staff that “our ethics policy prevents you from engaging in activities that would be a conflict with your employment,” including “concerts that are held as political fundraisers,” which Laszewski ignored. The suspension was for insubordination.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Laszewski’s response reflects a political bias. That's not a personal attack. Just becasue he is a reporter that doesn't strip him of his right to an opinion. And that is the point, which I believe Yost is making. When unstated bias is at work in “news reporting” readers take it as the “truth.” Yost has his bias as well, but it’s out in the open on the Opinion Page.

To take another example. Newspaper Guild membership (Communication Workers of America) is a requirement for reporters and opinion page writers unless individual employees jump through hoops to exempt themselves, which Yost did when he was hired. After his promotion to what is considered a management position, he is exempt from the Guild.

From the lead story in the June issue of the Guild newspaper mailed to all Guild members at their homes comes this objective headline --

Right-wing attack-dogs savage TNG president for comments on Iraq deaths
Barrage of abusive phone calls, e-mails prompted by Sinclair, Fox and bloggers

By Andy Zipser, Editor, The Guild Reporter

TNG-CWA President Linda Foley has become the latest target of right-wing extremists, who have mounted a multi-media attempt to force her resignation over comments made May 13 at a media conference in St. Louis. The campaign, started by Sinclair Broadcasting, Fox News and the Washington Times, then fanned by a growing number of bloggers, echoes a similar effort that earlier this year forced the resignation of CNN news chief Eason Jordan….

Readers may recall that Foley’s remarks claimed that the American military was actively targeting journalists in the Middle East.

According to a tape of her remarks, Foley said: "Journalists, by the way, are not just being targeted verbally or … ah, or … ah, politically. They are also being targeted for real, um … in places like Iraq. What outrages me as a representative of journalists is that there's not more outrage about the number, and the brutality, and the cavalier nature of the U.S. military toward the killing of journalists in Iraq."

Foley continued, "They target and kill journalists … uh, from other countries, particularly Arab countries like Al -, like Arab news services like al-Jazeera, for example. They actually target them and blow up their studios with impunity."

The article in the Guild newspaper attempts to put those remarks in “perspective.”

It was an aside near the tail end of her remarks that got all the right-wing attention. Journalists often are blamed for the ills that they report on, Foley said, “particularly from the right of the political spectrum.” And then, as if extending an unwitting invitation to prove her point, she added that journalists aren’t being targeted just verbally and politically.

“They are being targeted for real in places like Iraq,” Foley said, referring to the deaths, detentions and physical abuse of American and Arab journalists. (The full text of Foley’s remarks may be read online at
Clearly it is a generalization to say that the “get the wingnut” mentality applies to all Guild members, a notable exception during the Foley flap was Boston-based writer Hiawatha Bray. Here’s the Guild’s objective account of Bray’s efforts.

Piling on also has been Boston-based writer Hiawatha Bray, who made his bones with the right wing last fall in a sclerotic attack on John Kerry and now has taken to the blogosphere to go after Foley. Although Foley told Bray she’d be glad to speak with him as the Guild president responding to questions from a Guild member, but not for publication, Bray apparently felt he had a right to elicit public comments. “I’ve phoned her several times,” he posted on his web site. “Foley has said that she will make no further public comment on the matter. This won’t do.”

Bray’s response? The launching of a write-in campaign to win a seat on his local’s executive council—a move he explains was inspired by watching Jack Nicholson in the movie “Hoffa.” He ended up getting five votes, of more than 400 cast.
Two key points in those paragraphs. First, the media is excluding itself from the openness that it demands of others. Second, five votes out of 400 sends a pretty strong message that it’s not just Guild leadership supporting that attitude. This is the official voice of the objective reporters covering the war and politics in general.

That brings us back to Yost’s commentary. He wrote a column that was clearly his opinion, based on personal experience and reporting -- talking with troops actually deployed in the area and working on real projects that are making a difference. The response from the media has been personal attacks of the kind they condemn in their own publication, which expresses a bias that is not made evident when they file “objective” news stories.

As an outsider, a hobby columnist, I’ve posted on this press obsession with denying any bias in presenting the news, but it’s there. Just from the references above, it ought to be clear a lot of people, not just Yost, are carrying around a lot of baggage on this issue and to pretend otherwise is a disservice to the troops and to readers. Yost pointed that out, and frankly, I think his critics doth protest too much.

Update: It’s becoming obvious that in the rush to refute Mark’s comments, many of his most severest critics are only making his point. Take for example the response from Knight Ridder Washington Editor Clark Hoyt.

Yost asks why you don't read about progress being made in the power grid, which the colonel oversaw. Maybe it's because there is no progress. Iraqis currently have electricity for an average of nine hours a day. A year ago, they averaged 10 hours of electricity. Iraq's oil production is still below pre-war levels. The unemployment rate is between 30 and 40 percent. New cases of hepatitis have doubled over the rate of 2002, largely because of problems with getting clean drinking water and disposing of sewage.

Let’s accept Hoyt’s facts at face value. Do they prove Yost wrong? Perhaps on details (“average” means some Iraqis have more than nine hours electricity some have less), but more relevant to the ongoing debate, Hoyt’s comments make Yost’s point about the majority attitude of the mainstream media.

Negative reporting is not just about facts -- assuming there is no progress on the grid, Hoyt doesn’t ask why? Americans are working to improve electricity, but people are shooting at them. Now it’s unlikely the people doing the shooting are Iraqis interested in having electrical service. Do you think the people doing the shooting just might be people who don’t want Americans to succeed in establishing electricity? Yost’s military contact wakes up every morning with the single concern of rebuilding the grid. Do you think that was the first concern of anyone under Saddam Hussein -- or would have been had someone been shooting at whoever had that job?

The unemployment rate is between 30 and 40 percent -- was it better under Hussein? Was anyone concerned with creating an environment that made it better? What was the 2002 rate of hepatitis that has doubled? Seems that would be a relevant fact (to an objective reporter) to make the word “doubled” have any meaning. If the rate was 1 percent and is now 2 percent that’s not too bad considering, again, that people trying to provide clean water and improved sewage disposal are being shot at. If the rate doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent, that’s really bad, but once again, the base line 20 percent is not acceptable -- was it being addressed under Hussein? Is there any doubt Americans can build a sewage system -- oh yeah, people are shooting at them.

Sure, one can point to a lack of progress in some areas, but 1) were those problems being addressed under Hussein? and 2) isn’t the basic problem that people who don’t want those services installed are shooting at us?

Seems pretty basic. Yost is writing from the standpoint of someone that wants the United States to succeed in building an ally in Iraq. His accusation, which I submit his critics are validating, is that the majority of the press feels invading Iraq was a mistake in the first place and would rather, it seems, be right than see Iraq built into a stable nation and an American ally. It’s a bias they refuse to admit, and by doing so, encourage a negative view of America beyond providing an objective assessment of the situation.

Update: When will they let the bulldog out