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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

 May 6, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 6 

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Truth Stumbles in the Public Square

By Joan Chittister,OSB

Three stories caught my eye this week: a sharp criticism of American wartime journalism by the president of the BBC, an analysis of US war coverage by Ashley Banfield, an NBC reporter, and a column in The New York Times. As I read them, I remembered all too keenly a verse from the prophet Isaiah: "Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance. For truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter." (59:14). I got the idea I was watching that verse come alive in slow motion, up close and personal.

In a speech at the University of London, Greg Dyke, director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, warned British journalists about becoming "Americanized." "For the health of our democracy," Reuter's quotes Dyke as saying, "it's vital we don't follow the path of many American networks." Dyke's point was that the lack of objectivity that characterized U.S. war reports sounded a death knell for responsible reporting. Dyke said he was concerned by a triumphalism that undergirded the U.S. news media's accounts of the war in Iraq.

I had that same feeling when I returned to the United States from Europe in April. For three months, I heard day-long analyses of the pros and cons of war with Iraq, of the implications of disregarding international law, of the ongoing effect of unilateral action on the effectiveness of the United Nations in the months, even years, to come.

When I returned, I heard from the U.S. media not a hint of self-doubt about either the need for such international mayhem or what would result. Cautions were rare enough to be considered totally lacking. Not a word of explanation was given, not an hour was spent analyzing President George Bush's "unipolarist plan" to use American force "to make a better and more peaceful world." If anything, the president's plan was simply accepted as some kind of global holy grail.

Once the war started, the tone was even more strident. U.S. reporting of the war seemed more like cheerleading than analysis, the price of their close accompaniment of U.S. fighting units, perhaps. I began to wonder whether "being embedded' in an assault force wasn't simply a synonym for "being in bed with" the system that was selling this war as an answer to 9/11 and a promise of future security whether Iraq had chemical weapons and had subsidized terrorists or not.

Then I stopped myself. This was impossible. This is the United States of America. This is "free speech" land. I knew that I was toying with the specious notion that we are exporting -- at great cost in both lives and dollars -- democracy to another country as our democracy stands at a dangerous tilt.

Then I saw two other stories. First, a CNN report about a speech in Kansas by NBC journalist Ashleigh Banfield. She spoke about the one-sidedness of U.S. war reports. She noted that the U.S. media had pronounced the war "won" but had never showed the cost of winning it. The other side of the war -- the Iraqi side -- was never told, she said. Not one picture of the buildings we destroyed or the people who died in them was ever seen on U.S. television. (European journalists had reported the devastation of 158 government buildings alone, I reminded myself.)

CNN concluded its story by announcing that NBC had "chided" Banfield for criticizing her fellow journalists and that Banfield apologized -- one can only presume in order to keep her job. But if the press can't critique itself, who will?

Finally, I read Paul Krugman's column in the April 29 issue of The New York Times. He wrote that government sources have confirmed that we knew all along that Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction but that the administration "wanted to make a statement." We attacked Iraq, in other words, because we wanted to be seen as doing something, anything apparently, to stop terrorism, to make the United States safe again. The sources said, Hussein "had all the requirements to make him, from their standpoint, the perfect target."

So our government lied to us and manipulated the press and satisfied the hooting crowds in the Coliseum while Iraqi women -- babies in their bellies and babies at their breasts -- died in secret to save us?

That's when I thought of Isaiah: "Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance. For truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter." (59:14). From where I stand, it seems that we did indeed remove a monster. But, I can't help but wonder, at what monstrous cost to our own integrity, our own ideals, our own free market of ideas, and our own souls?

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