When Reporters Are Present, Yet ‘Fail to Bear Witness’

Arianna Huffington’s latest column (Huffington Post, 7/13/09) presents a compelling portrayal of the power of new democratic media–versus the self-preserving corporate model of news gathering–in the Chinese government response to major riots last week: “It choked off the Internet and mobile phone service, blocked Twitter and Fanfou (its Chinese equivalent), deleted updates and videos from social networking sites, and scrubbed search engines of links to coverage of the unrest.” But here’s the rub: “At the same time, it invited foreign journalists to take a tour of the area”:

That’s right, it slammed the door in the face of new media–and offered traditional reporters a front-row seat.

China’s leaders realized that it’s one thing to try to spin the on-the-ground views of bussed-in reporters (“To help foreign media to do more objective, fair and friendly reports,” in the words of the government’s PR agency), but quite another to try to spin the accounts and uploaded images of tens of thousands of Twittering and cell-phone camera-wielding citizens.

The Chinese have clearly learned the lessons of Iran.

As Huffington reminds us, “the truth is, you don’t have to ‘be there’ to bear witness. And you can be there and fail to bear witness.”

Driving home the point that “the conclusions drawn by eyewitnesses are greatly influenced by the eyes doing the witnessing,” Huffington then excerpts one of the most damaging journalistic examples of this in our time:

Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, [a scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program for more than a decade] pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried. This reporter also accompanied MET Alpha on the search for him and was permitted to examine a letter written in Arabic that he slipped to American soldiers offering them information about the program and seeking their protection.

So wrote an embedded Judith Miller, “bearing witness” to the “silver bullet” proof of Iraqi WMD in the New York Times in April 2003.