2006-07-06 / View From the Middle

View From The Middle

Sometimes The Message-Bearer Has Suicide In Mind
By Charles Rogers


We have learned from history books that, more than 230 years ago - before we became one of the colonies of Great Britain and long before we embarked on our battle for independence - King George III said that the press ought to be censored. His reasoning was that, at the time, it made the workings of government too familiar to the common people. It eventually became one of the rights we battled for and it was quite natural for us to make a free press part of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The principle has always been steeped in controversy. How could it not, when the press was, at times, the only entity questioning those who governed our nation? There were no questions when reporters, quite subserviently, bowed to the Public Information Office of the military during the wars of the 20th century, expounding on how well our armies were conducting their battles and themselves - and not taking much notice of the negatives of battle. No doubt that forced positiveness did indeed help to give us a confidence that won those battles. The realities of it, however - the negatives - were only brought to light when a mother received a telegram from the War Department telling her that her son died for his country.

Later in the century - the 1960s and early '70s - brought us a new awakening. It was called the Vietnam War, and all its gore and, yes, reality, came home to us on a television screen as we watched the evening news while eating dinner. It was too late for the government to censor the press. Because of the inventiveness and new technologies of communication, correspondents and news producers on the field saw - and reported - what the action really was.

In too many instances, the real story got out - and it wasn't pretty. "That damned press did it again!" that administration said. "They went and made us look like, well, like a government that didn't know what it was doing." Reports were issued by journalists who were there; who saw and reported on things first-hand; who, more often than not, let the public know what they saw with precise accuracy, much to the consternation of the Pentagon.

All of a sudden, journalists were no longer friends of the people in Washington, D.C. All of a sudden, "Death to the message-bearer" became the cry again as Richard Nixon and Company came down hard on the press. Sometimes it was warranted. Sometimes not. It was easy to see why there was such antagonism when we study our history books about Watergate. It was easy to see - especially at the time - why every fire started in every big city during the later 1960s was blamed on the press. Never mind the discontent in the country. It was said that one only had to shine a television light on a scene and the news event became something staged.

Now we're in the 21st century, and with it, another war. This time against an enemy that would kill itself just to kill us. Despite the First Amendment constrictions, this time the Bush Administration has said it will not be hampered by the press.

But they seem to be doing their own hampering. We all know there are things that a Commander-in-Chief is allowed to do during a war. We all know the Patriot Act - approved by Congress - gave President Bush carte blanche, as it should have, to do pretty much what he wants against terrorists and would-be subversives.

When the New York Times reported a supposed leak last week on its front page, much was said about it (and not a helluva lot about the leakers), to which the Times' executive editor, Bill Keller, countered, "We believe The Times and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on these programs so that the public can have an informed view of them." The President called the supposed leaker and The Times' reporting of the leak "disgraceful" and lambasted them. Some outraged politicians have called for a Congressional investigation and some have even said the newspaper should be taken to court.

The fact is, the story on which they reported was old hat. It was something everybody already knew, but The Times decided to put it on their front page as if it was new news.

That's not good. Even for the Grey Lady. Especially for the Grey Lady, which has had an awful lot of in-house problems within the past year or so. This time, it seems The New York Times - in all its pretentious glory - has gone overboard.

The First Amendment was implemented 230 years ago last Tuesday so that an arm of the people could oversee - and report back to the people - what government is doing and if they are doing it in a responsible way. It would behoove the press to be responsible too.

By trying, again, to make a fool of the administration, The New York Times also made a fool of itself.

**************

We just about had all the ills of the world settled, Joyce Guarneschelli and I did, when she passed away quietly in her sleep last Wednesday.

I used to drive this tiny woman in her 70s home after work. She worked in the office of the Canarsie Courier for seven years and she lived alone on Avenue L, but always asked if I would drop her off at Waldbaum's so she could do a little shopping and break up her evening. She didn't say the evening was lonely, but we knew. We all knew.

We laughed a lot in the car, Joyce and I did. We both adored Manhattan and compared some of the early Broadway shows (her) with some of the later ones (me) and, laughingly, agreed that, no matter, we both had enjoyed our taste of the "big time" and the greatest city in the world.

Since I'd do the driving, Joyce always wanted to give me money for gas, to which I would reply - in no uncertain terms - Don't try it, lady, or I'll drop you off right where we are!

And she would laugh. And so would I. And we would go through the whole process the very next day.

I will miss taking her to Waldbaum's or to her home. We were about to settle those ills of the world - but now it will have to wait.

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