David Bacon Stories & Photographs
U.S. Journalists Failed In Yugoslavia
The following letter appeared as an oped in The Guild Reporter, national newspaper of The Newspaper Guild
by David Bacon, Northern California Guild

I've been wondering for some time what we, as a union, have to say about the war in Yugoslavia. Your article, "Bombing ends, question remains: who's a reporter?" was very helpful. I particularly appreciated its description of the vote taken in the Guild's sector conference, and how isolated our union's position has become from the overwhelming opinion among the rest of the world's journalists. It is a position even isolated from our own roots -- Heywood Broun would not have been proud of the Guild's failure to condemn the bombing.

Your article covered a hard subject for a union newspaper -- one in which there is obvious political disagreement within our organization. You gave a clear sense of the difficulties for President Foley in acting as a representative of the union while remaining true to her own beliefs. Many union newspapers would simply have viewed the situation as too controversial and said nothing -- that's actually what most of them have done. The Guild Reporter should be congratulated for its courage and fairness.

Like Aidan White of the International Federation of Journalists, I regret profoundly that we did not speak up for the lives of journalists in Belgrade, killed in the bombing of the Serbian television transmission tower, or the lives of the two journalists then killed in the bombing of the Chinese embassy. I believe our failure to do so is a violation of the principles we stand for -- the right of journalists everywhere to report the news as they see it, and our responsibility to extend the hand of working-class solidarity to defend them when they do their jobs.

To say we will only act in solidarity with journalists who advocate the position of the U.S. government questions our own independence. We should have protested when our government told Yugoslav journalists that it would target them for bombing and death if their media outlets did not agree to air the U.S. point of view. We would certainly have said something if the roles had been reversed. Similarly, we should protest the effort to excuse the bombing of the Chinese embassy by calling the journalists who worked there spies. In the long run, we will be the ones to suffer from this lack of solidarity. How can we expect solidarity when we need it, if we remain silent when our government labels as "propagandists" anyone who disagrees with U.S. foreign policy, and then kills them?

The failure to speak up for these fellow journalists reflects, I'm afraid, an unwillingness among many U.S. media workers to probe deeply into the causes of the war, and to be critical of our own government. Throughout the conflict, spin doctors at NATO repeatedly used loaded phrases designed to push the buttons of the U.S. public -- including calling attacks on Albanians "racist," the Serbian government "fascist," and using the analogy of the Nazi death camps. Unfortunately, few journalists sought to examine how appropriate these analogies were. Even fewer sought to question and expose the government's geopolitical motivations and hypocrisy hidden by the use of these loaded terms.

I believe our union can learn from this experience. We need to struggle for independent international relationships, based on mutual working-class interests, and free from the defense of U.S. foreign policy which characterized so much of labor during the cold war. Our union also needs to encourage members to look critically at the content of our work, as much as at the conditions under which we perform it. The Guild has to find ways to support our right to independence from the bias of the corporations we work for, and the efforts by our own government to enforce political conformity.

The key to independence is a culture of solidarity, helping members to identify our common interests, not just with other journalists, but with other workers generally, internationally and here at home.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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