"Freedom of the Press" Is a Phrase That Sounds Well. but in the World of George W Bush and Enron, Freedom Is Not Meant to Be That Free. (Columns)
Pilger, John, New Statesman (1996)
On 4 July, the front page of the Daily Mirror was as powerful as any I have known, a tabloid at its best. George W Bush was flanked by a row of Stars and Stripes, chin up, eyes misted. "Mourn on the Fourth of July," said the banner headline. Above him were the words: "George W Bush's policy of bomb first and find out later has killed double the number of civilians who died on 11 September. The USA is now the world's leading rogue state."
The next day, Tom Shrager, a fund manager with the American investment company, Tweedy Browne, phoned Philip Graf, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, to complain about the front page and the accompanying article, which I wrote. He reportedly "did not threaten" to sell his company's 4 per cent share of Trinity Mirror and "began by stating that he respected the concept of freedom of the press."
The United States has the freest press in the world. Under the constitution, journalists can push beyond limits of free speech accepted in this country. It is a freedom that lies fallow. Even Watergate, the Arc de Triomphe of modern journalism, was not quite as it seemed. Among the 1,500 journalists who were covering" Washington at the start of the scandal, only two of the least experienced reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, sustained any curiosity about the Watergate burglary that led to the fall of Richard Nixon.
Seymour Hersh, America's great maverick reporter, believes that, contrary to the myth of a fearless adversary press, "the press did an awful lot to bring us Watergate". He contends that some of the most serious crimes of the Nixon/Kissinger years -- the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, widespread domestic spying, and the assault on the Chilean government of Salvador Allende -- were not disclosed until after Nixon was elected for a second term in 1972, even though journalists knew about them.
This was equally true of the "Iran-Contra" scandals during the years of Ronald Reagan, whose terrorism in Central America, especially against the government of Nicaragua, was ignored by many leading American journalists, who knew about the secret deals. I remember reading at the time an interview with Walter Guzzardi, the editor of Fortune magazine, who poured scorn on the notion of American journalism as a "fourth estate" steadfastly independent of government. Far from being a liberal redoubt, he said, more than three-quarters of the press had always endorsed the Republican Party. "The flow of news in America is essentially benign," he wrote. "The press has become a tremendous -- and often unappreciated -- force for legitimising governments, institutions and free enterprise."
In the US these days, as in Britain, genuine investigative reporting, which is costly, time-consuming and often politically unpalatable, is rare. It is unlikely that Woodward and Bernstein would be encouraged to follow the presidential scent today. Presidents are protected; Clinton was pursued by the media for salacious reasons and has since been reinvented as "misunderstood".
The same protection has been afforded the unelected George W Bush. …