Journalism, My Nationality

By RJI on February 25, 2008 0 Comments

by David Binder

What is nationality in this age of nationalism and, if you will, of latter-day imperialism – most notably American imperialism? I propose that nationality is what you choose to be by way of identification. Nationality is not necessarily the same as citizenship.

According to the category of citizenship I am an American. I am grateful for it because that citizenship is an enormous privilege that endowed me with freedoms, safety and advantages few other countries can match. I regard my patriotic feelings as very private. They come to the surface in cemeteries where lie the remains of people who gave their lives to protect my freedoms.

I was born in London of American parents, the father of German ancestry, the mother of English ancestry. A few years before her death my mother told me that I was conceived in 1930 while she and my father were on a trip to the Balkans. She carried me in her womb through Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania that summer. So in a sense, perhaps, my origin is partly in the Balkans.

I have been a newspaperman all my working life. I started, part-time, when I was in high school some sixty years ago. Over those years I worked briefly, or for longer stretches, in 30 countries on five continents. Some colleagues brag of working in twice or three times as many countries in their careers. To me that is an idle boast. Besides, at the rate new countries are being born, now more than 190 in the United Nations, none of us will ever see them all.

My own interests led me to concentrate on a handful of Eastern and Central European countries. In fact three countries I came to know quite well have vanished from the maps: The German Democratic Republic, the Federative Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

What does that mean? In the great scheme of things countries, or states, or nationalities, are transient creations. If we look at history, we see just how transient, here in the Balkans? Where are the Romans, Illyrians? Avars? Franks? Goths? Normans? Byzantines? They are both here – somewhere in the DNA - and gone.

So what is permanent?

As a boy, the son of a newspaperman, I worshipped my father and his colleagues, many of whom were famed chroniclers of their times. Because of two of them I became a newspaperman myself.

That is why I say, journalism is my nationality. My passport was my press card that said “journalist,” “reporter” “newspaperman” -- it is all the same.

And to what involving that nationality am I loyal? I am loyal to my profession, to my fellow journalists. I am loyal to an idea, to an ideal – to the idea of objectivity, to the ideal of integrity. It means that if I make a mistake, I correct it, in print. I admit that I have made mistakes, sometimes through ignorance, sometimes through carelessness, sometimes through the belief that something happened when nothing happened.

My mistakes were not earth shattering – not like the reporter from UPI who wrote that Churchill was dead when Churchill was in fact happily painting, on the French Riviera. Or the DPA reporter who wrote in April 1964 that Khrushchev was dead when Khrushchev was still very much alive, or the very prominent American reporters who wrote that the Pope from Poland had been shot at by a Turkish KGB assassin dispatched from Bulgaria – a mistake they never had the decency to correct.

But mine were nevertheless mistakes and they had to be corrected.

So what is objectivity? Put very simply it is the effort to present both sides, or all sides if there are more than two, of an issue, and to take adequate account of the arguments of all sides.

A complex case existed in the Bosnian civil war, where there were at least three sides (or four or five if you count the Belgrade Serbs and the Zagreb Croats). In my opinion, during the four years of that conflict and ever since, the American and northern European media were largely one-sided, biased, that is, not objective in their reporting of that conflict.

Allow me to give an historical example of objectivity. On D-Day, the day Allied forces landed on the northern coast of France in 1944, The New York Times page-one story datelined London carried a lengthy passage quoting DNB, the Nazi press agency of Adolf Hitler, reporting the event from the German perspective. In fact DNB was the first press organ to disclose that the invasion was under way – the media of the Allied countries being precluded from that “scoop” by wartime censorship.

I mentioned that example of objectivity during a discussion in Washington of the Bosnian civil war by way of saying that I thought American reporting would have been helped by including what Tanjug or the SRNA agency had to say on the events of the day. An American colleague denounced me, saying he saw no reason to cite reports provided by the enemy or “aggressor” as he put it.

There is a long-standing argument about whether the national agenda is set by the government, or by the media. The argument was intensified in the 1990s by what has been called the “CNN factor” – the fact that millions of viewers and dozens of governments can be confronted almost instantly with images and sounds of battle, death and destruction from any corner of the globe – confronted and then overwhelmed by re-broadcasting of such images all day long and often day after day.

This argument goes that because of the flood of images, governments are compelled to take actions they otherwise would try to avoid. Surely there is some truth in this. But in the end, it is governments that decide whether to act or not and we in the media follow their lead and report what they do or do not do.

For instance, I think the Clinton Administration after years of dawdling, despite heavy media attention, decided to act in Bosnia and later in Kosovo because those conflicts created opportunities to transform NATO into an additional instrument of American power. It worked. But we see in the Darfur crisis a place where the United States has deliberately chosen not to become active despite heavy media attention for the last three years.

Thus I contend it is governments that set our agendas, not the reverse.
If this is as many say the “Information Society,” then obviously the purveyors of information are at the top of the heap, vital to the political class, for without the media their messages would not be transmitted; vital to corporate mangers because without the media their products and processes would remain virtually unknown to the consuming public.

But there is a grave danger in belonging to the elite, which a great editor, Russell Wiggins, warned about, saying, that if the media became “the house organs of a fragment of the upper class in a society where each fragment is increasingly intolerant of the others,” then the media is obliged to redress that imbalance.

There is another quality that I believe distinguishes a good journalist: Modesty. Let’s face it: Many of us tend to be showoffs. It goes with the nature of the work – the belief that “my story is the best story.”

That egotism, akin perhaps to an actor’s belief in himself or herself, helps us keep going. The problem in journalism comes when egotism makes you imagine that you are more important than the story you are reporting. That gets in the way between the story you are telling and your readers. We are NEVER more important than a story.
One more thing: Every writer needs an editor, another pair of eyes examining our work. I discovered, almost too late, that one of my best editors was my wife. She had no training in journalism, but she has a very discerning eye.

I said earlier that journalism is my nationality. My family – my nation – includes, along with American colleagues, the journalists in the countries where I have worked. some going back forty or more years. They helped me greatly to understand their countries (some giving me stories that they could not get printed in their own papers) and I tried to help them understand America. Not as a patriot, but as their fellow journalist.

What we have in common is that we say, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” a sentiment echoing Shakespeare and Sophocles. My own favorite version is an injunction from Albania’s Kanun of Lek Dukagjini. It says: “Lajmtari nuk ban faj” - translation: “the messenger is not guilty.”

David Binder has worked for a number of newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, Minneapolis Tribune and the London Daily Mail. He covered the building -- and the fall -- of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communist systems in East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia. He reported on the civil wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and on the Kosovo conflict. He is the author of Berlin East and West (1962) and The Other German - The Life and Times of Willy Brandt (1976) and was a co-author of New York Times books on Project Apollo, the fall of Communism and Scientists at Work.