Columns » Bob McCord

Democracy in 77 days?

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It now seems evident that Iraq isn't ready to become a democracy. Yet, the Bush Administration says in 77 days it still intends to turn the country over to an Iraqi Governing Council that the United States hand-picked. United States soldiers will remain to keep order, and our leaders refuse even to estimate how long the 130,000 soldiers will have to stay. Last week thousands of Iraqis, previously never heard from, took to the streets with their guns and began kidnapping hostages and firing at American soldiers in three cities. As of Monday, 70 American soldiers were killed and at least 900 Iraqis, some of them women and children. It all started when a group of Iraqis killed four Americans, set fire to their bodies and dragged them through the streets of Fallujah. Marines were ordered to sweep the area and find the killers. Muqtada al-Sadr, a rabble-raising Shiite cleric who hates the United States because it is occupying his country and shut down his newspaper, dispatched his followers to attack the Americans. Many innocent Iraqis, including women and children, were hurt and killed. As a result, four members of the Governing Council resigned, a battalion of Iraqi soldiers trained by Americans refused to fight al-Sadr's attackers and hundreds of Americans in the National Guard and Reserves on their way home were ordered to stay in Iraq. Naturally, all of this has startled Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, because the polls indicate that most Iraqis like us because we got rid of Saddam. But polls can't be relied upon in a country thousands of miles away. Bremer and the military commander were on TV Sunday, and their appearance and their response to questions were pitiful. Richard Cohen, who writes about foreign affairs for the Washington Post, said it well: "We don't know what the hell we're doing. Bremer and the rest of us are simply going to have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we will never know what is happening in Iraq. It's a different culture." From the beginning, many thoughtful people have been urging President Bush to persuade the United Nations and other countries to help us in Iraq. But with this new uprising, no country would send its soldiers to Iraq. In fact, some that have sent a few are now talking about withdrawing them. Tuesday night President Bush said Americans "have a chance to change the world." ***** About a dozen newspapers -- Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, etc. -- in the last few years have discovered out-right liars among their reporters. Liars who would rather make up news than report it. The most you can say about the newspapers is that they discovered the phony stories, investigated them, fired the reporters and told what happened on their front pages. One of the three investigators, John Seigenthaler, former editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, spoke last week about this to about 100 people attending the annual Roy Reed Lecture during Journalism Day at the University of Arkansas. The investigators spent 14 months reviewing 720 stories written over 10 years by Jack Kelley, age 43, in USA Today, the newspaper with the biggest circulation in the U.S. They found that he fabricated eight Page 1 stories and lifted at least two dozen parts of stories from other newspapers as if they were results of his reporting. Perhaps the most brazen story was a tall tale about a young Cuban woman who drowned while fleeing from Castro's Cuba in a boat. To go with the tale, he furnished a picture of an attractive young woman, who, of course, was not the victim but rather a woman he met in Cuba. When the story and picture were published, he called her and said he had made a mistake in handing her picture to his editors instead of one of the drowned woman, who, of course, did not exist. Seigenthaler, 76, who left the Tennessean to be the founding editorial director of USA Today, said the investigation was "the most tragic 14 months of his life" because it made him realize that "culture in the newsroom has changed." He quoted and agreed (almost completely) with Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, who says it's the newspaper management as well as the reporters who are responsible. He quoted Kalb: "The business of journalism has degraded in recent years, corrupted by the new prizes and profits. Jack Kelley became a star of USA Today. The corrupt culture that has editors winking and blinking at journalists who break blockbuster stories that are played on Page 1 are just as responsible as Jack Kelley." Seigenthaler said Kalb thinks the only way out is for "corporate reparations." However, Seigenthaler believes that if journalism students are taught "enduring values" they can change the culture "from the bottom up." He describes the newspaper as a mirror that has to reflect the life of the community with "all the pockmarks, scars and warts,." and, he says, "the shards must be put back and the mirror repaired." According to Seigenthaler, people don't have to love their local newspaper, but they must believe it, trust it and rely upon it. Hence, liars can't be newspapermen.

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