Eight months ago I broke a leg and for most of the time since have been on crutches. Having coped with curbs, icy walks, a three-story classroom building that has no elevator and other impediments, I've become more sensitive to some of the problems of the disabled.
So I was more than ordinarily interested to read in the Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors that the ASNE has a Disabilities Committee. Its purpose: to produce guidelines to clear away the confusion and self-conscious fumbling that has characterized reporting and writing about people with afflictions.The committee tells editors that "we must do a better job of helping our readers recognize the personhood of people with disabilities."
- SOME OF THE SUGGESTIONS are just common-sense prescriptions. Nonetheless it's good to see them made, specifically and openly. For instance, they urge not mentioning a disability unless it is germane to the story. That is in line with the way media have come to treat age, sex and race, which ought not to be a part of the story unless clearly pertinent.
The committee also urges reporters to avoid pity. "Learn what the person can do - try not to be amazed at his or her accomplishments."
Journalists have struggled to find acceptable terms. "Part of the confusion stems from the fact groups representing people with disabilities do not always agree. For instance there still is no firm consensus regarding the terms `handicapped' and `disabled,' " the committee writes.
- IT RECOMMENDS choosing terms that focus on the person, rather than on the disability - "he has partial hearing," rather than "he is hearing impaired." It also urges much more precision in the use of medical terminology, suggesting that "mentally ill" and "mental retardation," for example, are often misused and misunderstood.
I expect there will be some resistance to changing terminology. The Dec. 24 Newsweek in a lengthy "Society" essay admonishes, "The earnest effort to eliminate prejudice of all kinds is promoting a controversial new orthodoxy of the `politically correct' and generating bitter opposition." And the syndicated columnist Lewis Grizzard took out last week against what he called "Speech Police made up of do-gooders, minority leaders and the media."
Count me, as one who is still hobbling, among those who feel that a sensitivity toward the disabled and minorities has been too long coming and that the "do-gooders" have a worthy cause here.GULF NEWS WATCH
The war is so much with us that the media have carried in the past week a torrent of complaints, discussion programs, debates and commentary on whether the massive coverage is too much, even in some ways a public disservice.
Every major event saturates the media. Judging from all the arguments of the past week, the reasons more people are howling overkill now boils down to:
This is the first true "living-room war." The term is from Vietnam, but that war ended before the satellite age revolutionized both the gathering and display of the news. Some viewers translate immediacy into haste and some blame the messenger for the news. On "Prime Time" last week Sam Donaldson shrugged, "We're never going to win a popularity contest. Our job is to report the news, and that is what we will do."
Field censorship plus heavy restrictions on reporter movements have made the reports generalized, and often trivial. (For all of its excellence in commentary, C-SPAN reporters, for instance, haven't done much in the field. Last Thursday night they took us on a visit to a Danish dairy products factory in Saudi Arabia). Says the New York Times, "Never have so many labored so hard to produce so little news."
The views of experts, which occupy so much of the news space and time, are often ambiguous and contradictory on such matters as the effectiveness of air strikes and the readiness of U.S. forces and the probable length of the war.
People, and not just the military, fear much information is aiding Iraq. Reports of failures, as in seeking out targets or intercepting missiles, or damage especially are viewed as playing into Saddam's hands. The major consideration laid down by a Pentagon panel set up in response to press criticism after reporters were excluded from the Grenada assault was that media "must not interfere with combat and combat support operations." But media interference in this or any war has been rare.
U.S. reports, particularly CNN, are being watched avidly by the enemy; this may be the only war in which nationals of the belligerent nations have been represented in one another's captitals, though Peter Arnett, the last American reporter in Baghdad, is now heavily censored.
There are risks in war coverage, but I much prefer overkill to the alternative, keeping the people, who have to bear the burden of the war, in the dark.
- IT NEEDS TO BE NOTED that while correspondents are heavily censored and confined to groups, or pools, escorted by the military, the press at home faces no such constraints.
The tradition that the press should be its own censor in wartime, following some guidelines voluntarily, goes back to World War I. George Creel, who headed the Committee on Public Information, writes in his memoirs that with war a certainty in early 1917, the generals and admirals pressed for a censorship law "that would have put the press in handcuffs and leg irons." Creel argued successfully that "expression, not suppression" was what was needed to cultivate what Wilson called "the verdict of mankind." Those are nice phrases to keep in mind.
- SOME PAPERS, including the Deseret News, have taken to printing a daily notation: "Day 9 of the Gulf War." I don't know why. It recalls Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News signoff during the Iran hostage crisis, something like, "That's the news this January 25th, the 122nd day of captivity for the Americans in Iran." Critics like George Ball, the former undersecretary of state, thought that line reduced the crisis to prime time soap opera and made it harder to manage.
- WHETHER THE NETWORKS should have aired the prisoner of war tapes was only mildly discussed in the press, unlike earlier cases. The media were accused of being used by the terrorists by heavily playing the pictures that purported to be the hanged body of Lt. Col. William Higgins in 1989, for instance. ABC was alone among the networks last week in refusing to air the pictures of the captured fliers, arguing this simply furthered Saddam's propaganda aims. Other networks carried disclaimers, noting that the prisoners probably were speaking under duress. In local and national interviews, some experts, chiefly former Vietnam war prisoners, said the captured Allied airmen appeared to have been tortured or at least coerced.