Shows praise, criticize press


February 25, 1991|By Michael HILL

The press is celebrated for its bravery and decried for its oversights in two insightful documentaries on PBS tonight.

First, at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, "Dangerous Assignments" looks at three stories that put their reporters at great risk.

One, a Peruvian journalist, lost his life while trying to cover abuses in the part of his country that gave birth to the Shining Path, Peru's left-wing revolutionary group.

In that area, it's an us-versus-them mentality on the part of a strong-arm government and, by asking questions, this reporter became one of them. He died in what evidence shows was a government ambush disguised as a Shining Path operation.

In the Philippines, "Dangerous Assignments" tells of a reporter threatened with jail via a libel suit because she uncovered ecological abuses by a powerful landowner who was stripping timber from an island.

Under the Philippine libel law, malice is assumed and it is up to the reporter to prove that it was not intended.

And from South Africa, there's the story of the only person to publish a paper in the Afrikaner language that opposes apartheid, a little weekly that survives despite bomb and death threats and harassment arrests.

"Dangerous Assignments" is marred only by its reliance on star quality. The three stories are narrated by the big three anchors: Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.

Much of the second half of the hour is taken up by a discussion among Jennings, Brokaw and Bernard Shaw. They really have little to say. It would have been better to have included a few more stories with anonymous narrators instead of letting these anchor egoes wade into the production.

Still, the hour is an effective tribute to the power of the press.

At 10 o'clock, in "Project Censored," Bill Moyers shows us that in the United States we take that power for granted so much that we threaten to lose it it through lack of exercise.

Moyers calls attention to a 15-year-old project out of a California university that every year seeks to determine the top ten underreported stories of the previous 52 weeks.

The hour lists 1990's top ten and then, via interviews, looks at five of the stories in some depth. Interestingly, the last of the four, the year's number one ignored story, is the lack of critical questioning by the press of the military buildup in the Persian Gulf.

That would fit into the same category of another of the five, the failure of the press to take a hard look at the country's war on drugs. In both cases, the media is probably guilty of not wanting to appear to question a popular and commonly held myth which comes complete with heroes and villains and other elements that appeal to viewers and readers.

And, indeed, ignorance about a third story -- the fact that some scientists have charged that emissions from the solid fuel boosters of the space shuttle are helping to destroy the ozone layer -- might be due to similar reasons.

The other two stories are more in the too-complicated-for-our-newspaper category. One is a remarkable bit of circumstantial evidence tying various shady dealings in failing savings and loans to the CIA and the Iran-Contra operation. That's been painstakingly pieced together by a reporter for the Houston Chronicle but ignored by most major papers across the country.

The other, the work of a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, is an examination of the cost of the huge number of projects that the Pentagon keeps off the books under declarations of secrecy. Again, other newspapers looking at this Pulitzer prize-winning project probably can't figure out where to begin with such a story.

The rest of the top ten includes problems with the savings and loan bailout, a true accounting of the results of United States' invasion of Panama, a federal anti-crime bill, ultimately defeated, that had serious constitutional problems, President Bush's involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, and the state of the banking industry which might face problems similar to those that plagued the savings and loans.

The juxtaposition of these two shows provides a sad irony; in these other countries, reporters risk their lives to bring that most sacred icon of their profession -- the truth -- to their readers, while in this country, such controversial truths go relatively ignored by an often too-smug press that just can't be bothered.

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