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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Old killer press still admired if not emulated

SINGAPORE — Everyone knows the American news media is proud as papa of its reputation as the storied giant-killer of politicians and as the watchdog of government. Aggressive journalism decades ago by The Washington Post and other major media institutions actually dethroned an elected president, Richard Nixon. This was the most iconic example of adversarial American journalism in action.

Courageous reporting of the grim reality of the Vietnam War by dogged U.S. correspondents emboldened the antiwar movement and eventually helped rally public opinion behind the war critics. More recently, reported scandals in the U.S. news media have dramatically shortened the careers of senators, governors, mayors, religious leaders, investment bankers, other pillars of the establishment, and organized-crime figures.

It is perhaps ironic, however, that this in-your-face news-media system is more respected throughout the world for its sheer brassiness than emulated as a model for universal use. In Asia, especially, serious people may worry that relentless media negativity can push public discussion in sensationalist directions, demoralize hardworking members of government, sour citizens about political life and set unwise national agendas.

In successful Singapore, which boasts one of the world's highest standards of living, the news media and government exist more as parallel lines of similar purpose than as crossed swords of continual confrontation.

The well-staffed Straits Times, the island nation's lead broadsheet newspaper, offers spotlessly professional coverage of Asia. It has more full-time correspondents in China than The New York Times. Its alert coverage of Southeast Asia blankets the region. Its opinion pages scoop up perspectives from the West as well as the East. It is a serious newspaper.

But it does not bash or lash out at City Hall. It does not shove its editorial nose into the face of the nation's leaders. The government would not let it, and the journalists — as far as any outside observer can tell — appear to accept this.

"The main role of the newspaper is to inform the citizens on the news, issues and developments which the reader needs to know about in order to make informed judgments and decisions," Han Fook Kwang, editor of The Straits Times, told me over dinner recently. "We do not think it is the role of the media to serve as a watchdog on government."

However, other Singaporeans are becoming increasingly interested in the ways of the world and wonder about their country's own future direction. They well-appreciate the differences in media approach and accept their leaders' criticism of the demoralizing negativity of an unrelentingly adversarial media. Still, to them, the media approach of the Americans does seem to have helped the U.S. in its rise to superpower-hood. And in Singapore (while largely Chinese) and even in much of Southeast Asia, a strong and healthy America is seen as a vital balance to a rising China.

That's why I was struck by fervent worries from Singaporeans about the evident decline in the quality of U.S. media. At a recent seminar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, midcareer students — mainly government officials from Hong Kong as well as Singapore — openly worried that U.S.-quality reportage seems to be on the skids. They know that for economic reasons, foreign bureaus have been closed, international coverage scaled back and overall editorial visas downsized.

It was impossible to express much optimism about the trend lines of American journalism, though I halfheartedly tried. But these well-informed Southeast Asian government officials know what they are talking about and obviously care about America, especially its current economic travails and its possible decline.

As part of that decline, they worry that the quality of the U.S. media might be in eclipse. Were America a tiny country like Sweden — or even Singapore, for that matter — the global consequences would be marginal, not monumental. But as the only fully realized superpower, the U.S. impacts the world when it makes big mistakes. And the job of a strong, alert and aggressive U.S. media is to help keep the government from making such big mistakes.

This is in everyone's interests. "When the American media fails to do its job, the impact can be almost criminal," a veteran European diplomat stationed in Singapore told me before heading off to a conference at the Shangri-la Hotel here. "Unneeded wars begin, many people die — it is wrong."

The obvious reference, of course, was to the Iraq war, when at the outset the U.S. media tragically failed to see through the lies of the Bush administration's hunt for weapons of mass destruction as justification for the Iraq invasion.

For all the justifiable criticism of our media, observers do not want it to decline or disappear but to stay steady on the job. The American system, they seem to be saying, may not be ideal for them, but it has proven the right one for the United States. Under these circumstances, our media's decline would be of worldwide concern — and possibly a global tragedy.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate, author of "Confessions of an American Media Man," is in Southeast Asia for the column. He has worked as a staff editor at Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and New York Magazine. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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