Democracy on Deadline: The Global Struggle for an Independent Press

As part of American University’s “Reel Journalism: Screenings and Symposia,” I had the chance to see Cal Skaggs’ fascinating and ambitious documentary, Democracy on Deadline: The Global Struggle for an Independent Press, which is due to air on PBS later this summer. The documentary traces the battles that news reporters face in the United States, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mexico, Russia, and Israel, as they seek to fulfill the media’s role in guarding against government abuses. During a Q&A after the screening, Skaggs commented that the documentary was intended as a series that would focus on news reporting in various countries, and that ambitious aim is reflected in the final product, a 2-hour documentary that addresses various complications news reporters face, whether Putin’s crackdown on the media or the Bush administration’s misnformation on WMD, as they seek to keep their readers informed.

While I think audiences could have easily benefited from an entire series on the topic, I found Skaggs’ method of juxtaposing these countries to be highly effective. Most notably, Deadline depicts the ongoing attempts at democratization in Sierra Leone and their relationship to the radio broadcasters who attempt to keep voters informed about the candidates’ policies, as well as information on polling places and other important information, while in Afghanistan, another reporter investigates the steep rise in cases of Afghani women committing suicide through self-immolation (this article is not by the reprorter featured in the film, but provides an overview of the issue). Skaggs builds from these stories to a discussion of the reporting on WMD during the build-up to the war in Iraq, and while he acknowledges the faulty reporting that failed to question the Bush administration’s threats of WMD, he instead interviews Knight-Ridder reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, who were among the few major reporters to challenge the WMD claims. The film culminates with an extended segment on Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper that has been criticized by both Palestinians and Israelis for its depiction of the conflict between those two groups. Reportes from that newspaper discuss the challenges they face in reporting on the consequences of violence committed by both groups.

But while all of these segments offer valuable insight into the need for effective news reporting, I felt that the film was a bit inconclusive in explaining how to preserve a truly independent press, an issue that came up during the Q&A session. These questions have been at the forefront of the recent conflicts in the US over news reporting. As one observer pointed out, Haaretz benefits from an owner who is committed to more objective reporting of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But having privately-owned news media, rather than corporation-managed media, is clearly no guarantee of effectivel media coverage, as the Judith Miller fiasco illustrates. In that sense, I think it’s worth making the case, as Molly Ivins does, for non-profit newspapers. As Ivins points out, newspapers showed operating profit margins of 19.2 percent in 2005, which isn’t too shabby, even if it is down from the 21% from 2004. But her column more readily points to the problems that emerge when profit is placed ahead of the service that newspapers provide, and as Skaggs’ film beautifully illustrates, that service is a vital one if we want democracy to thrive both in the United States and abroad.

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