Pale Wire (Popscene)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Over Where?
A Missourian in Doha

Terry Ganey reported in the The Columbia Daily Tribune on Sunday that retired University of Missouri Journalism School Professor Roger Gafke is helping train journalists at the Qatar-based news station Al-Jazeera. The story also reported that Gafke and active Professor Byron Scott attended a conference sponsored by the network.

Ganey, the former statehouse bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, turns up the innuendo, centering his story on how the school's involvement with a group George Bush is rumored to have floated the idea of bombing is creating "the potential for controversy."

Controversy with whom exactly is unclear. But our crafty correspondent does hint at two possible sources of friction:
  1. Old enemies in the Republican-controlled General Assembly:
    [J-school officials] haven’t forgotten state lawmakers’ criticism in 2001 when KOMU-TV wouldn’t allow broadcast reporters to wear American flag lapel pins.
  2. Opposition within the faculty:
    There was a faculty meeting last fall about involvement between the news agency and the school, but the issue went no further. School officials are seeking more information before moving ahead.
Supporting Ganey's case: A foreboding pretension issued from that august seat of power, the office of the spokesman of the state treasurer. The highly coveted position is currently held by the Honorable Mark Hughes. He said:
"The use of faculty and staff affiliated with the University of Missouri School of Journalism to train journalists or alleged journalists in a media agency like Al-Jazeera is questionable and merits public awareness and debate."

(The secretary of state reports Hughes' salary as $72,252, which is nearly double Missouri's median household income but still 19 percent shy of Scott's $88,821 earmarking.)

It's unclear to me whether Ganey's choice of the word "communicators" to refer to journalists at Al-Jazeera should be read as a sign of cowhearted hedging or old-fashioned clumsy writing, but things like that combined with the faint support coming out of the j-school are enough to make this blogger bristle.
"Initiatives in journalistic development in the Middle East are important for the school to consider," [Associate Dean Esther Thorson said.] "Such activities would be consistent with our historical mission to champion journalism and its role in democratic societies."

I'm reluctant to criticize Thorson (salary: $153,020) because I suspect she didn't know her words would be raised against Ganey's trumped up controversy. But it should be noted that her statement is factually incorrect. The nation where Al-Jazeera is based, Qatar, is a monarchy, and a large share of its viewers live in authoritarian states.

In fact, the one certified "beacon of freedom" in the region, Iraq, has banned Al-Jazeera from covering its democratic government.

Someone is going to have to come up with some legitimate reasons why Gafke's work is a bad idea before I think otherwise. Most of the complaints I've heard about Al-Jazeera have been either minor or partisan, and it seems to me that influencing its employees should carry with it the same, if not greater, urgency as the school's efforts to train journalists in the former Soviet bloc. There's really no excuse for Ganey's lazy and alarmist buzz-baiting. I expect better. If he's going to raise the specter of past criticism from the legislature, he could at least contact the critics themselves.

While it's well and good to talk big about journalistic "ideals" from the comfort and security of Columbia, it's also easy to forget that justice's work is far from done. Journalism isn't democracy's child, but its partner. And the course charted by its handmaidens ought to be one guided by principle, not political fashion.

Disclosure: I'm a graduate student in journalism at the University of Missouri and although I've never taken one of his classes I do know Prof. Scott. I once broke bread with him and a group of visiting Moldovan journalists at the esteemed Flat Branch Pub & Brewery. And while I'd bet he doesn't remember me, I also shared at least one group meal with Mark Hughes at the less fabulous Arris Pizza Palace in Jefferson City when I was covering the General Assembly and he was heading the state Senate's PR effort. How's that for balance?