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Editorial Notebook

April 26, 2003

ON JUNE 22, 1812, a Baltimore mob, incensed by the anti-war stance of a newspaper called the Federal Republican, attacked its offices on Gay Street and destroyed them. Five weeks later, when the newspaper tried to resume publishing from a new office on South Charles Street, a mob attacked it again, killing one man and beating up a Revolutionary War hero (the father of Robert E. Lee) who had come to the defense of the editor.

This was in the days when people cared passionately about the American experiment, and disagreed vehemently. No one was quite sure how long the experiment might last. The press - partisan, scurrilous, virtuous as it might be - was central to the struggle between competing visions of the nation.

Two centuries later, we tend to take the broad American consensus - and the supporting role of the media - for granted. We're fortunate in the resilience of the American system, in knowing that political conflicts, scandals, exposes and rumors may come and go but don't spell the end of our way of life.

Other countries - former Soviet republics, for instance, or Latin American drug realms, or now the new Iraq - are not so lucky, or so even-keeled. The press in these places can be a sort of barometer of that.

It isn't necessarily very balanced. Sometimes it's courageous, sometimes it's bought off. Generally it's tendentious, often very readable, at times blatantly unconcerned with the truth. People with something to hide - and there can be a lot of them - understand the threat posed by the press. That helps explain why at least 15 journalists were murdered last year because of their work - in Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia. (Another Russian reporter was shot to death last week, in Murmansk.)

These are countries of varying degrees of instability, where fear contends with hope and self-confidence is wanting; that's why a newspaper that attacks a politician or a business or an idea looks dangerous indeed, from the target's point of view.

The thing is, people everywhere want to know what's going on. People are eager for news, particularly where it's hard to come by, and they're eager for opinions, too. That gives the press its power. The only reason to kill a crusading newspaper editor in Manizales, Colombia, is because the people of Manizales are reading his newspaper. (That was Orlando Sierra Hernandez, of La Patria, murdered on Feb. 1, 2002.)

In countries with thoroughly repressive regimes, the press is obedient because the regime runs the press. Typically there's a minimalist approach to actual news, and readers take a minimalist interest in the actual newspaper. Saddam Hussein's Iraq comes to mind.

Then one day the lid is lifted (in his case, courtesy of U.S. armed forces), and before you know it, newspapers are back. Once they've got a foothold they're as unstoppable as dandelions. You can root one up, but there'll always be another one. It happened in Kabul in 2001 once the Taliban had scrambled out of town, and it's happening now in Baghdad. Who, in the wreckage of war, wants to worry about getting a paper out? The same people who worry about it in newsrooms all over the world. The urge to get in the first word on history, to deliver the good news and the bad news (especially the bad news, if we're being honest), is basic.

The first newspaper to appear on the streets of the new Baghdad, trucked down from northern Iraq, featured a hammer and sickle emblem on the front page. Readers couldn't get enough of it. That George Bush - making Baghdad safe for communists! What would they have made of that, those brick-throwers back in Baltimore?

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