The growing number of journalists being stopped, held, beaten and even killed during the uprising in Egypt, and in places around the world where we desperately need strong reporting, is a disturbing trend. But even more disturbing is that this kind of intimidation is leading to a pervasive self-censorship, even in what are considered to be "free" democratic countries.
I grew up in Texas, where good ole boys, money and too much religion mixed in with politics, the justice system and the police. It wasn't until I left that I realized not everyone knew so many children who received a gun on their eighth birthday nor knew personally so many people who had been murdered or had violent deaths. Granted, I grew up next door to a well-known criminal lawyer, but intimidation and silent threats became more obvious as I began to understand how things really worked in my home state.
The places I have visited or lived that remind me the most of "home" are Los Angeles, Italy and Russia -- in other words, places where the "mafia" (of various kinds) and politics have been known to overlap, and you don't know whether or not you can trust the police or the justice system at all. Journalists in all of these places take their lives in their hands when reporting on anything that threatens the status quo... of intimidation. Be it the Pellicano-Hollywood story (those fish heads in the journalist's car) in LA, the murder of Russian journalists who attempted to get the truth out about a corrupt government and system, or the overall monopoly Berlusconi has on the Italian media, the message is clear: Tell the truth and risk being killed, harassed, or fired. So what begins to happen? Journalists begin self-censoring. They leave out important details, avoid using certain facts. As one well-known editor of an American magazine told me when I handed in a story on the first Gulf War, biotechnology and vaccine testing (and the lawsuits brought against high-profile investors on by the Gulf War soldiers used as guinea pigs), "I know it's true, but if I print this, I'll get sued." In Russia, you would get killed, in LA, your newspaper might be bought by some billionaire who could care less about the news and fire you... and in Texas, well, first you have to get them to read. (I once called the Houston Chronicle to complain that on the front page they had put the wrong flags over the heads of the leaders attending an economic summit, and they said no one else had called in to report it so obviously nobody cared!)
All this leads me to how I feel as a blogger for The Huffington Post after the AOL deal. Frankly I feel good about it. Why? Because AOL NEEDS HuffPost, NOT the other way around! In fact, I think if anyone could save AOL and generate a larger audience and better content it would be Arianna, who knows how to mix it up. Arianna can make use of their infrastructure and "hardware," while continuing to serve up content that accesses many audiences (both those who want entertainment and those who look for deeper political and economic analysis). HuffPost serves as a filter for important news from around the world. It is this very powerful function of curating news that has made the model work and attracted a huge audience. Furthermore, if anyone is going to dump the other one down the road, it will be HuffPost dumping AOL, not vice versa.
I have never felt the need to self-censor on The Huffington Post, neither in my posts, nor in my comments. I have always said exactly what I think, using the language I feel needs to be used. I have written a few times about things which upset people, and I defended my views via my public comments. I have also written about topics that are controversial and that are not always well-received neither by the liberal nor the conservative arenas. THAT is one reason why I like The Huffington Post and how it is run, because Arianna deeply understands BOTH the left and the right, their strengths and their weaknesses. I have been able to criticize, publish research and "out" those on the left (the green good ole boys) just as much as on the right (oil good ole boys).
Granted, most journalists (at least right now, as she expands we may begin to see more on-site reporting from war correspondents) on HuffPost are not risking their lives, though a few well-known reporters do the job they have always done and are able to do it more thoroughly on HuffPost than elsewhere. Take Dan Rather. His career was sidelined, and he was attacked for telling the truth. He took on corporate media. Now he has his own online news show and blogs on HuffPost. I am thankful to HuffPost for these and other bloggers.
We will see how things progress with the AOL/Huffington Post deal. But I think it will be Arianna telling them a few things and not vice versa. And the day I feel that something I write, or any other journalist I know wants to write, is edited out based on ad revenue, I will let you know... probably on HuffPost!
Follow Vivian Norris on Twitter: vivigive and via her website: www.vigilante-vnm.com.
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