Tuesday, August 23, 2005

When will they let the bulldog out?

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:48 AM |  

In his July 12 Pioneer Press column, my fellow “Right Brother” Mark Yost turned the mainstream media refrain “why they hate us” inside out in looking at military attitude toward press coverage of the Iraq war. Comparing press coverage with correspondence he regularly receives from his military contacts in-country, Yost contrasted reports of those “fighting and dying [that] want to stay and the people who are merely observers [that] want to cut and run.”

I commented on the controversy itself here. This, however, is not another column about whether Yost is right or wrong. It’s about the reaction to Yost’s column from his mainstream media colleagues and the news-consuming public. It’s about why the American public if not outright “hates” the media, certainly distrusts it.

Presenting conflicting views, seeking out controversy -- “news with an attitude” as the Pioneer Press characterizes its style with its bulldog logo -- is a time-honored journalistic tradition. One would think that challenged by Yost, publishers, editors and reporters might have embraced his column as an opportunity to air a discussion on media coverage of the war. To the contrary, Yost’s column ignited a media jihad.

The managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review posted on the Internet, “I can't wait to see how the KR [Knight Ridder] Washington bureau and the KR Iraq contingent responds to this one!. There he is, guys. Go get him.”

Knight Ridder Washington Editor, Clark Hoyt chided Yost , who “from the distance and safety of St. Paul, Minnesota, presumes to know what's going on in Iraq” better than the hundreds of brave journalists, including his own Knight Ridder colleagues “because his Marine colonel buddy tells him so.”

On the home front, Yost took an incoming hit from his own newsroom. “With your column, you have spat on the copy of the brave men and women who are doing their best in terrible conditions,” said one circulated email that concluded “I am embarrassed to call you my colleague.”

Meanwhile, Yost was receiving hundreds of emails from military men and women stationed in Iraq and around the world, thanking him for speaking up on their behalf.

“You speak the truth!” wrote the founder of CinCHouse.com, a web community for families of servicemen and women. “CNN . . . asked me if I could cry during an interview. . . . . You’re a lone voice in the wilderness, but you’ve obviously struck a chord with millions.”

The Pioneer Press has garnered national and international notoriety for Yost’s work, but you wouldn‘t know it from reading the home town paper. Outside of a couple of letters to the editor, there‘s been nary a word. Controversy close to home has the bulldog cowering quietly next to its dish. Apparent policy is let sleeping dogs lie. A good soldier, Yost pulled out of a CNN interview with Aaron Brown. No follow-up column has appeared since the “Why they hate us” column.

Ironically if not overtly, the Pioneer Press is reacting positively to Yost’s comments. Power Line posted an internal Pioneer Press memo suggested the paper could do a better job by broadening coverage of the war on the home front. The New York Times reports some “healthy” soul-searching at the Associated Press, a major source of Pioneer Press coverage of the war, about whether A.P. articles are really answering the question, “are we making progress in Iraq?”

Agree or disagree with Yost, it is an essential concern when a mainstream media institution backs off a legitimate story only because it is controversial. It raises the specter that other coverage might be tempered by trepidation -- made more relevant the Pioneer Press increases its focus on local issues.

Local is not equivalent to “inconsequential.” Local issues often impact our lives in ways far more critical than the lead stories on FOX or CNN. But if controversy close to home puts a leash on the Pioneer Press bulldog attitude, if it backs away from controversy with real consequences, the capitol city newspaper becomes little more than a daily shopper with a Sunday edition.

I am proud to be Mark Yost’s colleague. I’m proud to be associated with a newspaper with the courage to run a controversial piece that struck a chord with millions. There’s no need to keep the bulldog locked up. Wake him up and let him run.