Thursday, September 11, 2008

Daniel Schorr on Journalism, Politics and Conflict Resolution

Daniel Schorr was tonight's invited speaker at the UNLV Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution's Peace in the Desert lecture series. His talk was entitled "Forgive Us Our Press Passes."

Mr. Schorr spoke about his long-term career as a journalist relative to conflict resolution. He said that, on the one hand, journalism can "give light and people will find their own way." On the other hand, he shared recollections of a conversation he had with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and stated that journalists of that time did "deliberately try to get civil rights leaders to say something provocative because that's how we get put on the air." This search for provocative quotes, in turn, may have brought militant leaders to the forefront, expanding the violence of the times and changing the course of the civil rights movement.

Journalists, editors, and publishers can so easily change the course of history and literally cost people their lives by asking the wrong questions, not asking certain questions, purposefully not reporting important stories, overemphasizing one aspect of a story, investigating and reporting the activities of one politician while ignoring those of another, or favorably emphasizing one subject/person over another.

The conflict between Mr. Schorr's journalististic responsibilities to report the news came into conflict with the ethics of actually publishing a story that could negatively impact the lives of many people or even destabilize a government. "Twice in my long career I killed my own story" to keep people from getting hurt.

One story he killed was about Princess Juliana, whose daughter Princess Maria Christina (Marijke) of the Netherlands was born almost totally blind. In her desperation to find a cure for her daughter, Princess Juliana sought the advice of a faith healer. Princess Juliana's resulting extreme beliefs and behaviors nearly brought down the House of Orange. Mr. Schorr chose not to publish his story as it would so negatively affect the monarchy, the entire government of the Netherlands could have been destabilized. He discovered his publisher, Life Magazine, had also decided to kill the story just before he called to inform them of his own intentions.

The second time he chose to kill a story involved taped interviews with Jewish citizens of annexed Poland who were emigrating to Israel. Russia, Poland and Israel were in trilateral talks to make this emigration possible, but it was necessary to keep it quiet as Russia was attempting to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis had learned of these talks, the emigration would have been stopped. Reporting this story would have hurt thousands of emigrants. Since we are all a part of a greater community of humanity, Mr. Schorr stated a journalist might kill a story because "you live in a community and you have duties in a community."

Mr. Schorr discussed changes in the relationship between politicians and journalists as another type of conflict. He emphasized that what is happening lately and is "the most alarming thing in the field of journalism, is politicians have learned to manipulate the press... What I'm afraid of is the skill in government for manipulating the press."

The future of the press will be determined in part by economic and technology changes in media, the internet, and the blogosphere, according to Mr. Schorr. Anybody with a computer can be a writer, reporter, editor, whereas editing and writing used to be carefully done. Now, cameras can be put up anywhere. He also believes that economically, conglomerates are becoming mega-conglomerates, which are becoming ultra-conglomerates. He thinks it is possible that newspapers may not be on paper in five years. There will be profound change, but when asked about more specific changes that will take effect in the future, Mr Schorr said, "I have no idea."

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