Contemporary journalism may be short on hard investigation. Sure got long, though, on accounts of its own critical role. Seems that for every yard of shoe-leather reporters don’t wear through, they will walk a ten-mile parade.
Robert Parry, an investigative journalist who died unexpectedly last month, deserved a parade in life. He didn’t get one. The man who broke the truly scandalous elements of the Iran-Contra scandal was relegated to the margins from the time he began to reveal the deceptions of Ronald Reagan.
Loathing for the extraordinary journalist by mediocre journalists did not end. Unable to find work in traditional press, Parry began independent, reader-funded website Consortium News in 1995. This was one of several sites whose traffic was drastically reduced last year following a policy announcement by Google, and one named by an anonymous source in The Washington Post as “fake news”.
Consortium was not fake news. Parry was anything but a fake newsman. He was a man given to read tedious documents and moved to investigate a story, not merely restate the views of powerful interests, such as that which holds that Russia determined the outcome of the US election. What he was not given to do was blow his own horn. No matter.
The “reporters” that decried him, those that also seek to delegitimise Glenn Greenwald for daring to insist that the Russia Collusion tale may not have its origins in fact, blow themselves. If you doubt that self-congratulation has become routine, or that independent reporting now appears in inverse proportion to claims of independent reporting, you need look to be swayed no further than last week. Compare the substance of the ABC’s “cabinet files” to the ABC’s own celebration of the information windfall they turned into a non-event. On ABC TV, we saw ASIO employees wrestle with kilograms of pages. On the ABC’s website we see — what is it? — 57 pages taken from about a half dozen files, even as we were told about “hundreds”.
The ABC head of investigative news, John Lyons, appears to me to believe that the investigation of classified documents starts and ends with state approval. The best he can seem to say of the ABC is that it does not behave like WikiLeaks, an organisation by which Lyons is “appalled”. Join a majority of your colleagues, mate, in both toasting the unlawful detention of the WikiLeaks publisher and in behaving per our leaders’ best hopes.
This was a craven attempt by the ABC to show itself as independent and trustworthy. The Lyons piece was itself reprehensible in what it disclosed about its source—any one of the sixty government agencies empowered to view our metadata could determine the man’s identity. But our man Keane has already given it to Lyons. Just as Lyons gave it to potential whistle-blowers: don’t come to us. Go to WikiLeaks. They won’t drop breadcrumbs leading straight to your address.
“Whither journalism?” It’s whither in the lav. Perhaps if journalists spent a little less time charting the decline of their own job security and/or boasting of their own brave opposition to “fake news”, they might produce news real and interesting enough to read.
As Keane wrote Monday, state restrictions on press freedom are very real, particularly in Australia. While restrictions imposed by Trump on news outlets are highly visible — get out of my pressroom! — they were just as strict, and terribly expensive, under the previous administration.
Again, I’ll leave it to Keane, a reporter wont to wear out his shoes, to describe the state apparatus in play to all but end press freedom. What I will briefly describe, in the memory of Robert Parry, is the censorship imposed by news workers themselves.
In the current climate, one is either “with us, or with the terrorists”. If one writes or broadcasts an account of real events that challenges approved narratives — broadly, News Corp and Fairfax — one will be friendless, possibly broke. Say that the Russia collusion stories, as Parry repeatedly did, have their origin less in fact than in the Clinton campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters, and you are a “Putin Puppet”.
Critique the trickle-down feminism of journalist Tracey Spicer, and you’re a misogynist. Say that WikiLeaks, which never reveals its source and continues its record of publishing only verified documents, has given us good material … well, you’re also a misogynist. Say that the ABC was not doing its job with the “cabinet files”, you’re a useful stooge for Rupert Murdoch. Probably a misogynist.
Geez, but Parry copped it. He copped it, but investigated and reported regardless. He reported to the end. In December, he suffered a stroke that robbed him of his sight. On the last day of December, mere weeks before his death, he reported again.
In a piece that any person truly opposed to “fake news” will find moving, a blind reporter apologises for not having updated his news service as regularly as he could. Then, he describes the sightlessness of a press so comforted by Oprah Winfrey’s recent false description. When Winfrey described news media’s “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth” news media applauded.
Parry would not have applauded. Among the “outcasts and pariahs” punished for refusing to restate approved narratives, he applauded only investigation.
He writes, “My Christmas Eve stroke now makes it a struggle for me to read and to write. Everything takes much longer than it once did – and I don’t think that I can continue with the hectic pace that I have pursued for many years. But — as the New Year dawns — if I could change one thing about America and Western journalism, it would be that we all repudiate “information warfare” in favor of an old-fashioned respect for facts and fairness — and do whatever we can to achieve a truly informed electorate.”
If Parry could write these truths paralysed in the weeks before death, perhaps some of our local reporters could strive to seek some others. Applause and social media approval must not matter. The true reporter must risk being a pariah.