By Uchenna Ekwo
The attention- headline-grabbing on-air resignation of Liz Wahl who until Wednesday worked for Russia Today, the state-owned Russian news agency should provoke thoughts about the daily challenges faced by journalists in the discharge of their duties.
“As a reporter on this network, I face many ethical and moral challenges,” Wahl said at the end of Wednesday’s 5pm broadcast. “Especially me personally, coming from a family whose grandparents … came here as refugees during the Hungarian revolution, ironically, to escape the Soviet forces.” “That is why personally I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin,” Wahl continued. “I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth and that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning.”
Let’s unpack Wahl’s stated reasons for quitting her job. Clearly her reasons are professional, personal, and political. Professional because of the ethical minefields journalists walk through every day; personal because of her family experience with dictatorships; and political because she seized on the diplomatic row brewing between Russia and the world over the invasion of Crimea region of Ukraine.
The various media networks seem to be celebrating Wahl’s exit portraying her as courageous and professionally-minded for denouncing censorship and propaganda. Admitted that journalists should stand against censorship, defend the truth, and speak truth to power, how sincere is Wahl’s motive?
If she was not an American citizen working in a Russian media organization based in the US, would she have the courage to quit? If she was working in Russia where Putin’s iron clad rule reigns, would she contemplate embarrassing the government and the news organizations publicly? Is it possible that she acted at the behest of international actors seeking for ways to embarrass President Vladmir Putin whose action in Crimea has attracted global condemnation? Moreover, how ethical is it for a journalist to inject him/herself into a diplomatic row between countries?
Answers to these and other questions will help to analyze more accurately the sincerity and professionalism of Wahl’s action yesterday. The same journalists who praise Wahl’s action were part of a media system that did little to scrutinize the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq about ten years ago.
In their 2007 book, “When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina”, Bennet et al provided a sobering look at how the news media in America acted almost as a propaganda machine for the Bush White House as he sold an unpopular war to the world. I do not remember any journalist who quit because we could not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Instead, the news media especially the major networks became weapons of mass deception.
As evidently documented by Bennet, almost all the reporters who covered the Iraq invasion were embedded with the Pentagon and consequently the audience was fed with official account of events that undermined coverage of dissenting voices outside of the Beltway. That was a clear case of censorship or propaganda, the same reason for which Wahl quit on air yesterday on a Russian-owned news outlet. It would be interesting to think about what Ms. Wahl would have done if she worked as television anchor the day former Secretary of State, Collin Power made the infamous presentation at the UN as the build up to Iraq invasion intensified in Winter of 2003.
I have witnessed a television anchor quit in the middle of delivering the news. In 1983, Chuma Edozie, a news anchor with Nigerian Television Authority quit midway during prime time news cast one evening for what he called the network’s consistent broadcast of falsehood against an opposition party. The young and talented newscaster was hailed by some admirers but it did not last long because as it turned out, he acted for less than noble reasons and it ruined his career almost irretrievably.
It is against this background that I consider the response of Russia Today news organization to the on-air resignation of its former staff, Ms. Liz Wahl as measured.
According to the organization “when a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional. But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt.”
After all, didn’t she know she was working for a state-owned news agency from the very beginning? And if she objected to the network’s editorial stance why did she continue working there for more than two years?
I think that if anyone chose to eat with the devil, the person should have a long spoon and also be prepared from the beginning to face whatever consequences. The drama surrounding the action of Wahl and others like her merely draws attention to the journalist and does little to change the status quo. When a news person becomes a news maker, it is a reversal of role and to the extent this is appropriate remains controversial.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Wahl concluded that her erstwhile organization “is not a sound news organization, not when your agenda is making America look bad.” In her judgment, any news outlet that makes America look bad is not a good one. Really! So any news organization that makes another country look bad is not a good one? How about news organizations in the US that make Africa look like a jungle where humans live with chimpanzees, monkeys, and where fratricidal wars engulf the people, and where diseases, hunger, poverty take roots?
As purveyors of news, journalists will continue to be conflicted by ethical considerations in making decisions as to what the public should read, hear, or watch. But, to get caught up in political stalemate and diplomatic disagreements has the potential of shifting attention to the conduct of journalism and not the conduct of political actors who set off the dispute in the first place.
Dr. Uchenna Ekwo, a media critic and public policy analyst writes from New York.