Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The shoe-throwing media

In case you haven't read one of the, like, 300 or so previous posts, I enjoy writing about soccer here.

Granted, I do get thrown off by celebrity hijinx, impromptu book reviews, TV shows and other forms of pop culture references here and there. Hey, I never claimed to be good at this.

One thing I do like to talk about is the media, since, hey, I'm a card-carrying member of the press. Am I an expert, veteran journalist who's scoured the globe in search of the truth? Not at all. I am a colllege student who, whenever he gets the chance, likes to write about sports.

As many of you saw over the weekend, the most publicized shoe-throwing incident since Sir Alex tossed a boot in the direction of one David Beckham five years ago transpired in Baghdad. One, then two boots were hurled in the direction of President Bush during a televised press conference.

The first time I saw it, I admit, I laughed. Ha, ha. The idea of someone hurling their shoes at a world leader is kinda funny at first, if not somewhat distasteful. It's humorous until you actually realize that it's your own country's president. Whether you like George W. Bush or not, his title for many does stand for something.

But that's not even where my main concern is. Here's where I have a problem. That shoe-thrower happened to be a journalist. At that press conference with President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Muntazer al-Zaidi, an Iraqi TV reporter, placed his own self-interests ahead of his job and decided to become the story. As anyone who knows anything about journalism, that is a BIG NO NO.

The job of the journalist to report on the news - not to become the news. Once we become the news, objectivity disappears, and our credibility is shot to hell. What al-Zaidi did is violate one of the basic tenets of journalism: he made himself the story. Moreso, he violated two of the four prongs of The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

According to this code, journalists should "seek truth and report it." The code states that "journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information."

Additionally, journalists should "minimize harm." In fact, "ethical journalists treat sources , subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect," according to the code. Clearly, al-Zaidi, whatever his motivations, grossly overstepped these principles by hurling his shoes at a subject.*

(*While Bush escaped the incident without injury, the same can not be said for White House press secretary Dana Perino. She sustained a painful shiner under her right eye during the ensuing melee'. Gotta say I gained alot of respect for public relations after she returned to the press podium with a fresh bruise earlier this week.)

Mouyyad al-Lami, the head of the Iraqi journalists union, called al-Zaidi's actions "strange and unprofessional." Unprofessional, indeed. Because when one journalist looks bad, it makes alot of us look bad.

The title of journalist is not a God-given right - it's a privilege. It's a title afforded to a few lucky individuals who find a certain sense of nobility in keeping the public informed and the powers that be in check.

What al-Zaidi did, in my view, is a slap in the face to the many upright and respectful journalists who adhere to a certain code of ethics and abide by them on a daily basis.

Furthermore, given the context of where the incident took place - Iraq - makes it even more disturbing. The freedom of the press has been something enjoyed, if not taken for granted, by Americans for over 200 years. The idea of a free press is a pipe dream in many, many countries around the world. Iraq used to be one of those countries.

Yet, that concept seems to have been all but forgotten by al-Zaidi. Had he pulled a similar stunt six years ago, he would have likely been severely beaten, then tortured for years to come under Saddam Hussein's brutal regime.

As a journalist, I hope Mr. al-Zaidi is shown clemency by the state for his actions. As unprofessional as he acted, he did not commit a serious crime.

But his actions should be a reminder to all journalists that our profession is one of privilege, and by no means, a birthright.

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