Richard Engel’s Speech

Richard Engel spoke earlier this week at the Newseum’s memorial for journalists killed in the line of duty during 2012.

The Newseum’s website carries a brief account of the speech.

Journalists take risks, Engel said, “to understand the world and how it changes. We go to where the cracks are.” The honored journalists died “doing what they loved. They died in the line of duty with their boots on and their pen in hand.”

Unfortunately there is no complete transcript of the speech, but the speech is available at C-SPAN. Someone preserved the clip in which Engel addressed the Hamas controversy.

Engel acknowledges, at the beginning that not everyone who has a pen and a camera is a journalist, some are activists. A journalist, according to Engel, unlike an activist, doesn’t have causes but principles. Then he notes that a number of those activists were fighting the Syrian regime, which silenced them. He hailed them for fighting against tyranny. So was Engel equating Syrian rebels with Hamas?

If Engel endorses the righteousness of some causes over others, isn’t he then an activist rather than a journalist?

Contrary to Engel’s muddled analysis, there are lines. Al Aqsa TV is a terrorist organization designated so by the Treasury Department. That makes its employees terrorists, not activists.

The Newseum removed the names of the two members of Hamas from its list, but it didn’t remove the name of Ali Abbas, an employee of Assad’s official SANA news agency. Since Engel called the Assad regime a dictatorship, does he mean that propaganda in the service of a dictator (or oppression) should be protected?

According to news reports Engel was held by Assad loyalists. Does it bother him that that one of those honored as a journalist killed in the line of duty was aligned with those who captured, threatened and tormented him and his crew? I feel nothing but sympathy for Engel who must have endured hell for five days, but by refusing to draw a line between news gathering and propaganda, he diminishes his own suffering. There are villains in this world and it isn’t activism to identify them as such.

Contrast Engel’s slippery assertions with those of Marvin Kalb in assessing the role of media in modern warfare:

If we are to collect lessons from this war, one of them would have to be that a closed society can control the image and the message that it wishes to convey to the rest of the world far more effectively than can an open society, especially one engaged in an existential struggle for survival. An open society becomes the victim of its own openness. During the war, no Hezbollah secrets were disclosed, but in Israel secrets were leaked, rumors spread like wildfire, leaders felt obliged to issue hortatory appeals often based on in complete knowledge, and journalists were driven by the fire of competition to publish and broadcast unsubstantiated information. A closed society conveys the impression of order and discipline; an open society, buffeted by the crosswinds of reality and rumor, criticism and revelation, conveys the impression of disorder, chaos and uncertainty, but this impression can be misleading.

This is fundamental truth that seems to have eluded Richard Engel and the Newseum. Not all news is created equal. When propaganda (or worse) is equated with news, it emboldens the bad actors in the world.