A memorial for journalists who died while reporting the news wouldn't seem to be the kind of thing that would attract controversy, but that's exactly what's happened with an exhibit at the Newseum.
On May 10, the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone reported that the museum was being criticized by "conservative outlets and a pro-Israel think tank" over the inclusion in its Journalists Memorial of two reporters from Al-Aqsa TV, which is run by Hamas.
Hussam Salama and Mahmoud al-Kumi were cameramen for the outlet, and were killed in an Israeli aistrike on Gaza in 2012. As Calderone reported, the museum appeared to be standing firm:
A Newseum spokesman noted that their car was "clearly marked 'TV'" and explained the criteria by which the journalism museum honors those who've fallen in the field.
But to the Newseum's critics, Hamas' status as a U.S.-designated terrorist organization meant that the journalists should not be considered reporters at all.
Within days, the Newseum was changing its mind, as Calderone (5/13/13) reported in an update:
The Newseum announced Monday that it will not honor two cameramen killed while working for Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV, reversing a Friday decision to include them on a memorial for fallen journalists following pressure from conservative media outlets and organizations supporting Israel.
Calderone's reporting includes comments from the group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has criticized Israel's targeting of the journalists.
But the controversy actually brings to a mind a very similar incident that also involved CPJ.
In 1999, the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia included an attack on Radio-Television Serbia (RTS) in Beglrade, which killed 16 journalists working for the state outlet. CPJ protested the attack in a letter, but then the following year decided not to include those journalists in its list of media workers killed in the line of duty.
As FAIR noted (Extra!, 9/00), the group defended their decision on the grounds that the station had been "an integral part of an ethnic cleansing campaign” in previous Balkan wars. The station was not alleged to have been part of any such effort at the time NATO attacked its headquarters.
As FAIR argued, if encouraging attacks on civilian targets during the Kosovo airstrikes meant that one could no longer be considered a journalist, then people like Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Tom Friedman of the New York Times would be in trouble. (FAIR sent a letter to CPJ, endorsed by Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman and others–8/2/00).
And Nima Shirazi (Wide Asleep in America, 5/13/13) points out that the Newseum's decision is disturbing, because attempting to set such a standard is fraught: Some journalists who have been included in Newseum tributes worked for government-sponsored outlets, including at least one active-duty military journalist. Shirazi writes:
Apparently, the Newseum has determined that our propaganda deserves respect and admiration, while their propaganda (in this case, documenting on camera the effects Israeli bombs and missiles have on the human flesh of Palestinian people at Gaza's al-Shifa Hospital) should be condemned, targeted and investigated.
So why did the Newseum change its mind? It sure seems like the people doing the complaining were powerful, and they were complaining about journalists with relatively little power, affiliated with a political movement the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization.
It's exactly the type of politicized decision that the Newseum should avoid if it wants to stand for journalistic independence.