Say what you will about Sarah Olson, she got the story. On the ground and armed with only an audio tape recorder, reporter Olson did nothing more radical than dig deep — the first law of journalism. Her interview with Lt. Ehren Watada vividly painted the portrait of a young man in anguish — to serve or not to serve. As the after-hours boys in the Press Bar used to say, “It’s a great story!”
The Watada case is about to become front page, his court-martial at Fort Lewis, Washington is sure to be covered by the networks, the wire services, the major dailies and all the grandees of big journalism. Olson — the local scribe with little power and no budget — got there first. She should be an exemplary reference in the opening day lecture at Journalism school, she got all the “gots”, the coin of journalism’s realm. She got there, got it right and got it out.
She did all this and now she’s threatened with jail if she doesn’t help the prosecutors punish Lt.Watada in a military court. By summoning this reporter to testify against her source the Bush administration is once again admonishing dissenters (and the press who cover them) to shut up and sing, a very un-American thing to do.
Over six thousand U.S. military have gone AWOL since the beginning of the Iraq war, a great story, an important story. How much deep digging can be expected from reporters who risk being forced into court just for talking with these resisters? What acts of conscience will never be known because an over reaching Federal Government looms over the powerless, local journalists who still have the passion for this kind of true story of courage?
Join PEN, the LA Times, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Press Club, and other organizations (not to mention the Framers of our Constitution) and help keep journalists free to be pushy, unpopular and inelegant — sticking a nose under the tent to learn what the righteous have decided is good for us. Dan Ellsberg, John Berendt and Barbara Ehrenreich and do as I have done, sign the petition calling on the Feds to back off this kind of media intimidation. There is no substitute for free and unfettered news gathering. Journalists are not cops nor are they public relations people. They are reporters and there is no substitute for them.
And there is no substitute for Sarah Olson — alone and on the ground — getting a great story right and getting it out there.
PHIL DONAHUE is a former talk show host.