Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What Will They Say? (Part 2)

Last week I focused on an article published by the Miami Herald which raised some questions for its editors: "Will [Fidel Castro] still be the dictator? The former dictator? The half dictator? Or if he dies, what should his obituary say?"

This prescient article, written a few days before Fidel Castro publicly resigned as Cuba's immovable President, I found to be quite unoriginal and incomplete. The author, Edward Schumacher-Matos (the Herald's Ombudsman), ignores the very questions he himself raises and provides no direction or guidance to readers (or editors) so they can decide for themselves how to answer those questions. Instead, the article becomes a soapbox for Schumacher-Matos' views in which he criticizes reporters for being "squeamish" when describing Fidel Castro as a "leader" or "president" instead of "dictator." And, finally ends all debate and discussion because "calling [Fidel] Castro a dictator is a fact, as much as it is that most contentious of things, a truth."

In my opinion, Edward Schumacher-Matos never wanted to have a serious discussion about how people describe their political leaders, or to enlighten anyone with a discussion on how the general population reflects on abuses of power by leaders of the world. By avoiding "that most contentious of things," Schumacher-Matos misses a very important point about the word "dictator," leaving readers very misinformed, and journalists in danger of risking their obligations to the public.

"Dictator" is an emotionally-loaded word. It has various uses throughout society describing all kinds of people who abuse their authority or position within a social hierarchy against the wishes of subordinates. Of course, the label is most used when its comes to heads of state: note the recent list of Parade Magazine's "World's Worst Dictators." Obviously, since these are political agents capable of exerting maximum power over a population, they become the targets of the most passioned denouncements, mainly by their victims. Therefore, using the word "dictator" is not merely an act of reporting "fact" as Schumacher-Matos conveniently describes it, it is also an act of outrage, which is not the role of a journalist.

One of the most important tenets of journalism is independence. If a journalist begins to express certain outrage (real or perceived) in favor of one side, then his or her public credibility can be harmed. By settling for neutral labels like "leader" or "president," the journalist prevents any perceived conflicts of interest, and can concentrate on the ultimate journalistic duty of "providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues." I believe the honest journalist will see that this position is justified, unless one is willing to sacrifice the public's right-to-know for one moment's personal outrage.

Yet, sometimes we cannot help it. Emotions have a way of influencing most of our behavior, and sometimes without our control. In addition, those expressions are mostly subjective and sometimes may not adhere to the general attitudes of the population. Therefore, it seems reasonable for the journalist to avoid using emotionally-loaded writing, and instead place priorities towards the science of testing accurate information, and the responsibility of providing relevant context.

But, we are still human, and the word "dictator" still belongs to our arsenal of personal judgments. When the recent "World's Worst Dictators" list came out, several readers' comments nominated President George W. Bush. Even the author of the list, David Wallechinsky, in 2006 stated that "Bush does use many of the same tactics that real dictators use, committing the same human rights abuses that the U.S. State Department condemns when they occur in other countries, declaring himself not bound by laws passed by Congress, and using the old, classic dictator line, 'Our nation is threatened by an evil outside force; only I can save the country and if you oppose me you are unpatriotic and support the enemy.'" (But personally, Wallechinsky does not believe Bush is a "dictator.")

So, what will they say when Fidel Castro dies? For whom shall he be "president," and for whom "dictator?" Let's find out.

[Part 3]

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