WASHINGTON – The American media have had some ups and downs in the last few years, but the guiding principles behind the news are still admired around the globe and are frequently called upon as examples of how emerging democracies should build their press foundations.
In an effort to help such nations achieve those goals, several organizations are sponsoring travels by American scribes, producers and managers to developing nations. While there, they teach journalists about ethics, fair and balanced reporting and a free and open press.
"We work to improve access to information for people around the world and we do that mainly by promoting independent media," said Annette Makino, senior vice president at InterNews Network (search), which in part hires professional journalists in the United States to teach their craft in new democracies such as former Soviet Union countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa and in Middle Eastern nations.
"The idea is when you provide people with access to diverse and vibrant information, it empowers them to make their voices heard and participate in their communities and that is what democracy is based on," said Makino. InterNews has trained 32,000 media professionals since 1982, she said.
The International Center for Journalists (search) also sends 20 journalists each year through Knight Fellowships programs that last three to nine months. Over the last decade, journalists on the ground in countries visited by ICJ fellows are just emerging from state-controlled media into open markets.
For instance, Ethiopia opened its press to private ownership a decade ago. Another destination for instructors, Russia, continues to grapple with broader issues of media law and new media outlets like satellite broadcasting.
"I think it's critically important to help not only people in other countries to learn the value of independent and daring journalism, but it also helps journalists here who suffer from a terrible case of myopia, to understand the work out there," said Tim Spencer, a print journalist of 22 years who just returned from nearly a year with the ICJ program in Ethiopia.
"I did not look at myself as the great white knight coming in and telling people, 'This is the way you should do it.' I tried to teach and inform by putting my mind in their minds — kind of like a mind meld," said Spencer. "I'm not about to go into a developing country and say the way we do it in the [developed] countries is the best way."
In fact, some observers would argue that foreign press organizations have taken a dramatically different path than the U.S. media, even after following American-styled principles. Al-Jazeera (search), for instance — whose chief "benefactor" is the Qatari government, but advertises itself as "free from the shackles of censorship and government control" — often shows messages from terror leader Usama bin Laden (search) and most recently played video of the alleged bombing of a British transport plane that killed 10 soldiers. The United States media have declined to play bin Laden's audiotapes, following U.S. government suggestions that the messages may contain codes to bin Laden's terrorist followers.
"The problem of the free press is you won't always like what you hear," said Jim Pinkerton, a Newsday columnist and media analyst for "FOX News Watch." "Al-Jazeera, by most accounts, is the freest media in the Middle East and yet their staff seems to mostly dislike Americans. Their viewership seems to mostly dislike Americans. That’s the way the free media bounces."
Government-Sponsored Free Media
The Knight Fellowships program is funded entirely from private sources, but InterNews and others take a portion of their money in grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (search), an arm of the State Department.
Some participants as well as news media critics say it is better that the government — especially in times when U.S. foreign policy has been criticized as meddling at best, imperial at worst — stay out of the news business. They argue that private monies would better send a signal to foreign hosts that the program does not have an agenda set by Uncle Sam.
"It's the desire of the Knight Foundation ... to show our independence," said Donatella Lorch, a former foreign correspondent and director of the Knight Fellowships program.
"Automatically suspicious," Pinkerton said of overseas press programs funded with government grants.
Others, however, defend the funding, saying the State Department does not meddle in the programs, it merely asks that the money be spent on what it is earmarked for.
"There's really no criticism," said Dan Kubiske, chairman of the international journalism committee at the Society of Professional Journalists (search), the leading membership organization for journalists. Kubiske has participated in SPJ’s professional exchanges over the years and has worked as a correspondent in Asia.
"Journalists are not dictated by the funding source," he said.
Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University who runs the Russian-American Journalism Institute with Ithaca College professor Christopher Harper, said they get $250,000 in USAID money to run their program but wouldn't take the cash if strings were attached.
"Obviously, we would not participate if the State Department had any control over the journalism that was produced," Stephens said. The institute sends students and professionals abroad to work with their counterparts in Russia and host Russians in the United States. "I have never felt any pressure of any sort."
Most, if not all, host countries care more about learning than about who paid the plane ticket and board, said Michelle Foster, a former national media marketing manager who just returned from a Knight Fellowship in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China.
"I was sent there to help media owners and managers have better business skills, so they could have greater financial success and achieve greater autonomy," she said. "They are so anxious to learn these things."
Foster noted that China's Communist government still has control over the press but is becoming more flexible after seeing the results of a freer media.
"The media in China, for example, is poised to become a major contributor to [China's] gross domestic product," said Foster. "They are ready to take off and let media become a much more dynamic part of their country."
"We should encourage market forces at work, be it economically and intellectually, to eventually help to bring about full and free discussion," Pinkerton added.
Spencer said the overseas programs also help American journalists put their careers and their views of their own profession into perspective, something needed particularly now. Scandals like CBS' handling of a story on President Bush's National Guard service and the New York Times' revelation that one of its former front-page writers committed plagiarism and fraud, have called into question the very standards U.S. journalists are teaching abroad.
"We have big problems here," said Spencer. "I think we can learn from our mistakes and maybe be better journalists."