It was the bravest of years and the most cowardly of years.
Bravest because so many journalists risked life, limb and sanity to cover the war in Iraq not to mention other hellholes which, indeed, never got much mention in the media.
Cowardly because so many other journalists, particularly those embedded in Washington, risked not even being dropped from a cocktail party invitation list by asking the questions that needed to be asked.
According to Reporters Without Borders, 31 journalists and two media assistants were killed in 2003, most of them in Iraq. Worldwide, 126 were imprisoned while 60 "cyber dissidents'' people who post stuff online that their governments don't like landed in jail.
Among the fallen, Canada's Zahra Kazemi, the photojournalist who died of a cerebral haemorrhage after her skull was smashed in an Iranian prison; Britain's Terry Lloyd, the ITV reporter who was apparently shot by Anglo-American troops in Iraq; the Ukraine's Taras Protsyuk and Spain's José Couso, two cameraman who were killed when a U.S. tank fired on the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad; Tarek Ayoub, the Al Jazeera cameraman and Jordanian national, who died after his Baghdad office was bombed in a U.S. air strike; British freelance videographer James Miller, shot by Israeli forces while covering the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza ...
The toll goes on, in India and the Philippines, Colombia and the Ivory Coast and these are just the ones we know about. All journalists murdered for doing their jobs, for daring to stick their necks out and tell the stories that need to be told.
Meanwhile, in Cuba and Morocco, in Turkey and Tunisia, countries where freedom of the press belongs only to those who are free to oppress, journalists are jailed, often tortured, without a fair trial or even a good reason.
But it was mostly because of the U.S.-led attack on Iraq that journalists stood out, for better or worse.
Two tales from the front:
On the one hand, we saw Peter Arnett, the veteran war correspondent who made his name in Vietnam and in the first Gulf conflict, fired by NBC for telling Iraqi television that the early part of the invasion "failed to meet its objectives." Never mind that he was right. He should not have been so openly critical of the Pentagon.
On the other hand, we had Fox News' Geraldo Rivera, the clown formerly known as a journalist, fresh off his Osama Bin Laden-hunting trip in Afghanistan, getting bounced after he drew a map in the sand, live and on camera, pinpointing the position of the army unit he was travelling with.
The word "embed" acquired a whole new meaning, as some 600 reporters were able to give a grunt's eye view of the action, or as U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, in his sugar shock and awe way, "slices of the war in Iraq." But only slices of the winning side. Most media refrained from depicting what was happening when all that mega tonnage fell on the neighbourhoods of Baghdad.
But even the worst war reporters were braver than their colleagues ensconced stateside in studios and administration briefing rooms. They allowed the spinsters to weave their webs of lies and obfuscations, permitting President George W. Bush to mislead his nation into war.
As Editor & Publisher has so ably documented, the press failed to challenge claims about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein's ties to the attacks of 9/11, or the legality of the war in the first place. Indeed, at Bush's only news conference in the immediate run-up to the invasion, White House reporters went along with a pre-scripted program and have yet to lead an attack on the administration for how, among other things, it is hampering the official investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Journalists such as these would build the myth around Pvt. Jessica Lynch, participate in the false picture of the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad's Firdos Square and, just two weeks ago, perpetuate the unlikely claim that recently found documents link Saddam Hussein to Mohammed Atta, who is said to have piloted one of the ill-fated planes on 9/11.
Which is why, of all the journalists we lost this past year, one of the bravest was John Patrick Hunter, who died Nov. 26 at the ripe age of 87.
In 1951, during the McCarthy era, this crusading newsman typed up excerpts from the U.S. Constitution into a petition and, on July 4, asked his fellow Americans in Madison, Wisc., to sign it. Of the 112 people he approached, 20 accused him of being a Communist, while most others balked at signing for fear of government reprisal. Only one man recognized the lines from the Bill of Rights and put his name to the petition.
Hunter always believed that the press was obligated to defend not only its own freedom, but also democracy and civil liberties for all. No wonder he was appalled by the abrogation of rights since 9/11 an abrogation that most mainstream journalists have let pass with barely a peep, let alone a squawk.
Not only do they betray their craft and calling, they also betray their braver colleagues, the true journalists, who have died in the quest for freedom.
They are the true journalists.
The others are mere stenographers.
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited