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9/11 Trial Is No Time for Journalistic Activism

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Posted on November 18 2009 4:00 am
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Monday night’s episode of The Daily Show raised an important issue, as only Jon Stewart could – replaying moments from the ridiculous media frenzies surrounding high-profile trials in this country, as a prelude to the upcoming trial in New York City of the 9/11 terrorists.

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When the 9/11 trial does begin, no one will be laughing. We are already seeing a profuse amount of punditry on the television screen, radio waves, Internet and print news, sending an ominous signal of the media barrage to come.  The trial itself will be a drawn-out, exhausting process for the nation. But it’s the impending, non-stop, circus-like media coverage that will undoubtedly be the test of the endurance of the American spirit.  If past examples show us anything, it’s that the media will forever believe more is better in their rabid pursuit of ratings and readers.

Jeanette Pryor recently wrote an in-depth piece on the choices facing journalists going into this controversial trial. In her article, she asks journalists,

“Will you join the perpetrators by facilitating their release onto the streets of New York, thus preparing yourselves to be the sure victims of their Jihad? Will you be worse, will you be a bystander and miss your chance to prosecute, by ink and by words, the men who cut a fellow writer into pieces?”

Pryor’s questions caused me to pause and consider for a moment my training and education as a journalist in the military – having learned the same fundamentals as any civilian student of journalism.  One of these fundamentals is a clear definition of the role of journalists – to cover the stories that matter to their readers/viewers/listeners with objectivity and a vigilant focus on the facts.

A common criticism of judges – Supreme Court, Appellate or other – is a perceived tendency among some jurists to decide cases before them in a manner that rewrites law, rather than deciding cases based on the law as it is written. It’s called judicial activism.

“Will you be worse, will you be a bystander and miss your chance to prosecute, by ink and by words, the men who cut a fellow writer into pieces?”

In her passionate plea, Pryor is calling for what I would term Journalistic Activism – asking journalists to lay their judgment on the content of events, rather than cover the events in a factual manner consistent with ethical journalism. Such practice is more commonly known as trial by media or trying a case in the court of public opinion.

The events of 9/11 have caused Americans to question – more deeply than any event in recent decades – the proper balance between our liberties and our security. Some might argue we have already given up too much in the form of American ideals and liberties, in the wake of the Patriot Act for example, in reaction to an attack by fanatics.

Calling on journalists to act as mouthpieces for our darkest fears and anger would not likely impact one word or decision inside the walls of the courtroom where these zealots will be tried. But it would certainly be, for America, yet another compromise – another thread pulled from the fabric of the America – in the names of fear and retribution.

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