‘How Far Are You Willing to Go?’

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FASPE Fellows and instructor Stav Ziv, Dale Maharidge, Kate Newman and Kate Wilkinson from left to right. Photo by Dustin Volz.

By DUSTIN VOLZ

BERLIN—The U.S. government’s drone strikes are quick, efficient, and lethal.

These guided missiles accurately target foreign terrorist suspects seeking to harm Americans and help keep troops out of harm’s way, administration officials say.

But these attacks, which have increased exponentially under President Obama, have incurred unseen collateral damage—hundreds of children with foreign-sounding names who live in foreign countries.

That collateral is underreported, according to Dale Maharidge, a journalist and educator. How can journalists document something that is, by nature, a covert, high-speed killing machine?

The images of war can be enormously powerful, but only when governments allow committed journalists the opportunity to bring them to the home front. Absent that, abuses such as the Holocaust, My Lai, and Abu Ghraib can quietly pass unchecked.

In a seminar on reporting on the national security state, Maharidge, a Columbia University Journalism School professor and FASPE instructor, said he sees some parallels between how the U.S. government has suppressed journalists in recent years and the systematic control and intimidation of the press orchestrated in Nazi Germany by Joseph Goebbels, the fanatical propaganda minister who deployed increasingly subversive methods during Adolf Hitler’s reign.

In addition, the rise of nationalist animosity toward Muslim Americans after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the underreporting of deception leading up the U.S. invasion of Iraq show how quickly minority populations can be targeted and how easily journalists can struggle to find and report the truth.

“It starts to make you very cynical when you pull back the layers on the last decade,” said Kate Wilkinson, a Canadian journalist and FASPE Journalism fellow.

Maharidge also heavily criticized the stenography-as-journalism articles that he finds increasingly pervasive in U.S. political reporting.

“Their stories say nothing,” Maharidge said. “You see it all the time. That’s most journalists.”

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An installation at Berlin’s “Topography Of Terror” museum. Each colored square represents the file of an individual active in the Third Reich, with those tried in court jutting out from the wall. Photo by Anna Siatka.

Nazi Germany represents the absolute worst of what can happen when institutions, including journalism, fail in the face of tyranny and untold human atrocities. Those failures shed light on many of the ethical quandaries journalists face today, but they are not completely analogous, said FASPE Journalism fellow Martine Powers.

“The economics of journalism are, if you’re not making money on what you’re producing, if enough people aren’t reading it, eventually your newspaper will fold,” said Powers, a transportation writer for the Boston Globe.

Journalists today must not only consider whether to report wrongdoing, but how to balance the societal need for accountability with the business need for eyeballs.

Despite massive upheavals the journalism industry has witnessed in recent years, Maharidge encouraged FASPE Journalism fellows not to hesitate to passionately report the hard and necessary stories.

“All we can do is put it out there,” Maharidge said. “Our job is not to be loved.” Each journalist, he added, must consider what he or she is willing to risk for a story.

Thorsten Wagner, a German Danish historian and the European Director of FASPE, noted that Nazi machinations of press control should not be disregarded when weighing ethical concerns in American journalism.

“A free press and a functioning democracy can gradually fall apart,” Wagner warned, echoing a theme that has repeatedly emerged during FASPE’s study of the build up to the Holocaust. “In America, there’s nothing given. And also, America’s democracy is not given.”

Wagner crystallized the problems journalists in both eras have faced, and left the FASPE Journalism fellows with several questions to consider.

“If those are the ramifications of critical journalism today in free, civic societies, how far are you willing to go?” Thorsten asked. “What are the ethical, legal, political ramifications for that? Are you willing to break the law? Are you willing to … help somebody else break the law?”

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