The New Curmudgeon

Article excerpt

The New Curmudgeon

"I don't believe for a moment you can function as an intelligent citizen by simply relying on television."

Timothy Russert, senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of NBC News, let slip those naughty words at the Theodore H. White seminar in Cambridge last November, reminding us that the average American family spends close to eight hours a day watching television.

There is our challenge, print brethren. How do we grab away a fraction of those tv hours now that the huffing and puffing over how we covered the Gulf war is subsiding?

I have a few story ideas which just might help recapture the print press's traditional agenda-setting role. The answer lies in the stories on which we choose to concentrate. They may be obvious but all are especially urgent, continuous and most do not require overseas travel.

Most important, all do "move the canoe on down the river toward a more perfect democracy," as former Chicago Tribune editor James D. Squires wrote the other day.

Start covering the United Nations. Remember that organization which George Bush and James Baker maumaued so brilliantly into supporting all-out war in Iraq?

Until the Bush/Baker forces went to the U.N., guess how many U.S. journalists covered the U.N. on a full-time basis. Fewer than 10. The number holds, even weeks after the ceasefire. This out of a worldwide total of 250 reporters accredited to the U.N.

Only the New York Times, Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Los Angeles Times and Knight-Ridder have full-time correspondents on the job there.

The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor and all the rest of the large metros that could afford it rely upon stringers or their New York bureau's general-assignment reporters, unless, of course, a crisis is developing. The head count comes from Louis Foy, president of the United Nations Correspondents Association.

This skeletal staffing exists at a time when the U.N. could move onto a new plateau after its pivotal role in the Gulf.

It is a time, too, when most U.N. agencies, those devoted to assistance to development, children, poverty, environment, population and UNESCO, all have been somewhat jeopardized by the U.N.-backed Gulf war. Important peacekeeping work is going on in those dark recesses. This should be covered, and it need not be boring. Yet only a handful of American editors think it is worth covering on a regular basis.

Start covering the global flow of arms. Wasn't the wholesale sale of arms and other lethal equipment by the superpowers to Saddam Hussein the underlying cause of the war against him? Now the flow is starting all over again. Let us not forget that, since 1980, the United States alone sent about $1.6 billion in arms and high-tech equipment to Saddam. One shipment of military goodies landed in Iraq just one day before we went to war against him -- our own weaponry. In the arms-selling frenzy, too, were Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and China. Talk about greed unlimited.

U.S. defense contractors, urged on by the president, already are lining up at the Pentagon begging for more contracts. If the contracts are not granted, they argue, thousands of jobs across America will disappear just when the recession is peaking. The shopping list of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates is estimated at an enticing $60 billion. The industrial military complex is in full cry.

Further south, several African countries are in desperate throes of famine and disease, yet they are unable to deal with their survival crises because they are bogged down in civil war, wars made possible by the import of foreign arms. Who will pressure the United States to refuse to send weapons that prolong wars which are killing millions on the world's poorest continent?

The flow of arms is a giant First, Second and Third World story. …