American Pie 16.12.04

Despite the controversy over the pictures of a US soldier shooting a wounded insurgent in Fallujah taken by a cameraman assigned to the US Marines, and the latest revelation that an embedded journalist fed questions to a soldier at an official conference with defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Kuwait, the embedding programme is being praised. It has been given full marks in a study conducted by the Rand Corp, which compared two groups covering the war in Iraq: the 600 or so embedded journalists who lived, ate, moved, slept and endured combat fire with the armed forces; and 1,400 who were not officially attached to any unit and who have been dubbed “four-wheel drive” journalists. Although some critics labelled the embeds “soda straw journalists”, perhaps because they were seen as being spoon-fed news, the public, it’s claimed, has been better served by the system. Although the military tried to paint a prettier picture with optimistic briefings and conservative body counts, the embeds still produced stories of atrocities and military mistakes, the study found. At least four embedded journalists lost their lives in the conflict.

A treasure-trove of photographs, including the famous one of Elvis Presley in his coffin, are gathering dust -and probably mildew -in boxes stored in the former headquarters in Florida of American Media, the publisher of The National Enquirer, Star and other tabloids. They’ve been there three years since the building was the target of a terrorist who sent an anthrax contaminated letter to the magazines’ offices, resulting in the death of British picture editor Bob Stevens and the building being placed in quarantine. Its doors and windows are still sealed, and it’s surrounded by a high fence. Recently the building was sold to a speculator for $40,000 – but he has been told he does not own the pictures that are stored there. Officials won’t lift the quarantine until everything inside is removed or destroyed-including the picture files. But who owns them: American Media or the photographers? Getting their permission to destroy their work could takes ages. Decontaminating the pictures could be expensive. So far no one has been prepared to foot the bill.

Journalists these days are among the least trusted people in America. A new Gallup poll lists them lower than bankers, auto mechanics, elected officials and nursing home operators for “honesty and ethical standards”. However, they are listed above top lawyers, car salesmen and ad salesmen. Newspaper reporters are even less respected than their TV counterparts. Who tops the list? Nurses are rated the most honest and ethical. After that, schoolteachers, pharmacists, military officers, doctors, police officers, clergymen and bankers.

Roy Greenslade’s discourse in The Guardian about how poorly young journalists, are paid- and how as a junior reporter he augmented his income by delivering papers -prompted a conversation with Sir Harry Evans at a Press party. He and I exchanged notes on how little we were paid when we started. The former editor of the Sunday Times recalled that when he started, at 16, in Ashton-under-Lyne he was paid a pound a week. I countered that when I started at the same age-at about the same time — on the Shields Gazette on Tyneside my pay was seven shillings a week. And I still have my first pay packet to prove it! Anyone still around who got less?

By Jeffrey Blyth

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