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There was a moment that spoke volumes last week about the spinelessness of American journalism and its foot soldiers.
It happened as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was beginning a press conference in Baghdad during his brief visit to Iraq.
As he started to speak, all of the Iraqi and other Arab journalists in the hall got up and walked out, along with many reporters and camera crews from European and other countries.
About the only journalists remaining in their seats when the protest ended were the Americans, who on television could be seen shuffling in embarrassment in their seats.
The cause of the protest was the killing, only a few hours before, of two Dubai journalists from Al Arabiya by U.S. troops, who "took out" their car as they were driving past a military checkpoint.
As always, the U.S. military command has pronounced the killings to be unfortunate but justified, given occupation soldiers’ concerns about attacks by insurgents. Powell, for his part, expressed regret about the incident.
Regrettable, but the truth is that some 36 journalists have been killed in the course of covering this war, including a number who were directly and deliberately targeted by U.S. guns and bombs. That’s nearly one journalist for every 10 U.S soldiers killed by hostile fire. If you consider that there are over 100,000 American soldiers in Iraq, and at most only a few hundred journalists, it’s clearly a hell of a lot safer being a grunt and a target of Iraqi insurgents than being journalist and a target of American forces. (It’s also a hell of a lot more dangerous being a journalist in Iraq than it was to be a journalist in World War II, judging by the statistics.)
You’d think that American journalists would be as outraged as anyone at the killing of one of their own, but it seems not to work that way. For one thing, it’s not that many American journalists who’ve been killed by hostile action on the part of American troops. Mostly it’s been foreign reporters.
So in bed are most of the American press corps in Iraq that many of them seem to perceive themselves as part of the team (in many cases, as with The New York Times’ Judith Miller and the American bomb squad, or Fox TV during the rush to Baghdad, they have been part of the team).
Still, it’s appalling to see the lack of professional solidarity that was exhibited at that Powell press conference.
This walkout was, after all, not a political statement. It was not about whether the war was justified, or whether the occupation is good or bad. It was a simple act of professional solidarity in protest against rules of engagement that allow American troops to slaughter accredited journalists at will and escape the consequences of their actions. Surely no one-including their editors and publishers, or their readers or viewers–could fault reporters for protesting such rules and the deaths of colleagues that have resulted from them.
But the American reporters stayed glued to their seats, politely letting our veracity-challenged Secretary of State drone on.
It was a shameful display.
Not surprisingly, a few days later, the U.S. Army issued a report exonerating a U.S. Army tank gunner in the killing of a Palestinian cameraman for Reuters, who was shot as he was filming the tank last August 17. The Army, which has never revealed its so-called "rules of engagement," claimed the shooter had thought the man, Mazen Dana, had been aiming a rocket propelled grenade at the tank. (Forget that RPGs have posed little or no threat to U.S. M-1 tanks, and thus the tank gunner need not have acted in haste, or that Dana was in an area known to be crawling with journalists.)
No doubt, Dana and the two Al Arabiya journalists will not be the last of their profession to die in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Haiti, or elsewhere at the hands of American soldiers.
The least one could hope is that at some point, American journalists would stand with their foreign colleagues and insist on better protection.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He is now in Taiwan on a Fulbright scholarship.
A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org