Press in a mess

A red-eyed, drunken military officer, who was dressed in full uniform replete with enough medals and ribbons to make Idi Amin look like a piker, toyed menacingly with me, demanding my reporter’s notebook and making it clear that he could pretty much do to me whatever he wanted.

Nearby in the same plush room, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young chatted up the relatively new president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, the bushmaster who was then only beginning to refine his present-day tyranny. We were on Mugabe’s turf, and he hosted a cocktail reception to welcome Young and the trade mission (boondoggle) he led.

Earlier in the day, we’d driven by a grim, cement block building with a harmless enough bureaucratic name that disguised the real business that went on inside — the torture of dissidents. Young used the occasion to make a jolly crack about press freedom, pointing out with mock envy that Mugabe didn’t have nearly as much trouble with the press as the mayor had back home in Detroit.

And back home in Detroit, Young frequently enjoyed telling us baying newshounds that unless we, the press, got our act together, sooner or later someone would come along to put a leash on us. He wasn’t kidding, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that he wasn’t wrong.

At no time in the history of the First Amendment has the American press been such a mess. There’s endless evidence. Take your pick — if you’re at all interested.

At home, there’s the Mitch Albom episode. After he fabricated facts in a column about two pro basketball players discussing their glory days in college, Albom refused to characterize his intentional deceit as anything but a “mistake,” when it was nothing of the sort. His boss, Free Press Publisher and Editor (there’s a monumental conflict) Carole Leigh Hutton, meted out undisclosed wrist slaps to Mitch and his editors before the findings of an internal investigation were published May 16. That probe concluded that Mitch had ripped off a few quotes from other writers in the past and, you know, small stuff like that. It was also Hutton who killed a scathing review of Albom’s second book because “it came down to a decision about how I want the Free Press to treat its employees.” That didn’t appear to be her driving impulse when Freep management was dealing with striking employees a few years back.

Is Albom’s unapologetic deceit the end of American journalism? Of course not. Neither was Dan Rather’s sloppiness in reporting George Bush’s military record, although Dan lost his head over that one. Nor was the press’ obsession with Bill Clinton’s presidential slap-and-tickle with Monica Lewinsky, when no less than The New York Times transformed itself into a hardcore pornographer by publishing explicit transcripts describing what went on under Bubba’s desk. Neither were writer Jayson Blair’s repeated fictions in the news columns of the same newspaper, nor those of writer Stephen Glass in the venerable magazine New Republic. Not even Newsweek’s dead-wrong report on May 9 that the Quran was desecrated in front of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, which itself led to widespread protests and more death in Afghanistan.

But they add up, bit by bit.

A national poll released Monday showed that only 14 percent of the American public even knows that press freedom is ensured by the U.S. Constitution, and 22 percent say the government should be able to censor the news.

Back in Zimbabwe, I managed to keep my notebook. I’m not at all sure how things will turn out at home.

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