The Return of George Wallace? - August 21, 2003

Times Watch for August 21, 2003

The Return of George Wallace?

Thursdays front page story by Southern-based reporter Jeffrey Gettleman is on top Alabama Judge Roy Moore, whos earned the contempt of the Times for installing a granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the state Supreme Court. As of midnight Wednesday, Moore is in defiance of an order from a federal judge to remove the granite block.

Unusually, Gettlemans story, Alabamas Top Judge Defiant On Commandments Display, is datelined today (Thursday) rather than Wednesday, so Gettleman can report that Moore is officially in defiance as of midnight. Even more interesting, the early version of this story (filed yesterday) makes the cheapest of cheap shots against the monument, comparing Judge Moore and his supporters to Alabamas segregationist former governor George Wallace.

Despite threats of having his state fined $5,000 a day and being held in contempt of court, Justice Moore vowed to disobey a federal court order that begins at midnight. This afternoon, the United States Supreme Court refused to block the removal of the Ten Commandments monument. If they want to get the Commandments, Justice Moore said in a statement today, they're going to have to get me first. His obstinacy smacks of segregation-era defiance, of state rights versus the feds, of George Wallace's notorious-and failed-stand in the school house door. But many people like that. That attitude probably pleases the Times editorial page, which made the same comparison August 13. But perhaps its a trifle too obvious a slam for the news page, which could explain why in a later version in Thursdays paper Gettleman quotes someone else making the same comparison.

In an audacious example of comparison shopping, Gettleman looks around for someone who agrees with his George Wallace comparison and quotes him. Gettleman finds Barry Lynn, who has fought for years to clear the public square of religious references and even supports removing the phrase Under God from the Pledge of Allegiance.

This time around, Gettleman uses Lynn to make the Judge Moore-George Wallace comparison: Detractors say the whole thing smells like Alabama's obstinacy of yesteryear, of the lost battles for states' rights in the 1960's. He's been even more flamboyant and stubborn than George Wallace when he made his stand in the schoolhouse door, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Lumping the Ten Commandments protesters (which even Gettleman admits were racially diverse) with segregationist sympathizers is bad enough. But Gettleman didnt even stand by it, later finding a sympathetic soul to agree with his formulation and quoting him instead.

Gettleman's earlier piece read: "They came streaming in from all directions, wearing their crosses and Confederate T-shirts, carrying dog-eared bibles and bottles of water and enough Power Bars to outlast a siege. One man even walked from Texas, 20 miles a day, in a frock. Their mission: to protect the rock, Roy's rock. Their morale: high and rising."

As the heir apparent to the folksy Southern specialist Rick Bragg, Gettleman has some leeway for colorful description. But that doesnt excuse the deep condescension toward the Ten Commandment protesters. The Times treated antiwar protesters with far more respect. On March 21 Kate Zernike and Dean Murphy drily reported far more repellent antics during a San Francisco protest: Marchers set fire to bales of hay in the shadow of the Transamerica Building, opened fire hydrants and smashed police car windows. They vomited on the pavement outside a federal building and linked themselves with metal chains, forcing firefighters to use circular saws to separate them.

For Gettlemans early story on the Alabama Ten Commandments controversy, click here.

For Gettlemans later version, click here.

Alabama | Jeffrey Gettleman | Barry Lynn | Judge Roy Moore | Protesters | Religion | Ten Commandments

Italys Shameless Berlusconi Hampers Press Freedom

The Times odd anti-Berlusconi crusade continues in Thursdays Arts section. Television reporter Alessandra Stanley reviews The Prime Minister and the Press, an unsympathetic PBS documentary of conservative Italian Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, reviled by the European left. Stanley likes the documentary, lamenting only that it doesnt go far enough to expose how Berlusconi gets away with such outlandish statements and acts.

She also accuses him of hampering freedom of the press: A glimpse of Mr. Berlusconi's power and folly can be seen tonight on Wide Angle, a weekly PBS news program about international affairs. This episode, called The Prime Minister and the Press, focuses on how Mr. Berlusconi's control of Italian television has hampered freedom of the press in Italy. His media company, Mediaset, controls the country's three main private channels, while his government oversees the three state-controlled channels.

She recycles old charges against Berlusconi, who stood out among European leaders for his support of Bush during the Iraq war: He has also been dogged by charges of corruption for more than a decade and has just won passage of a law in Parliament that grants him immunity from prosecution while in office, derailing a trial he was facing in Milan. But that law applies to all government officials, not just Berlusconi, as even a recent critical article by reporter Frank Bruni notes: Parliament passed a law that gave the top Italian government officials, including him, immunity from criminal prosecution during their time in office.

Stanley goes on to half-lament whatever measures the documentary took toward objectivity: To their credit, the producers resist the temptation to paint Mr. Berlusconi as a buffoon or a Mussolini Mini-Me. Yet that same Anglo-Saxon sense of fairness and restraint is also a liability. It is a trusting world view that cannot quite capture what is different about Italian journalism and Italian society and why it is that Mr. Berlusconi gets away with such outlandish statements and acts.

According to Stanley, heres whats different about Italy: The Italian press is not built on the American model. As in many other European countries, only more so, Italian newspapers and magazines are ideological and opinionated, and facts are not always ruthlessly checked. With a few exceptions the Italian media are not fair, balanced or tenacious. They were noisy but pliant under previous governments, and they are now ill-prepared to fend off the far more shameless incursions of the current prime minister. Unfair, unbalanced, ideological and factually dubious journalism? Sounds to Times Watch not unlike a certain Manhattan-based newspaper empirebut never mind.

Stanley praises Italian journalist Mario Travaglio, prominently featured in the documentary, as a dogged muckracker. His book The Odor of Money charges that Mr. Berlusconi's first real estate ventures in the 1970's relied on financing from associates with mob ties, a rumor that has floated around the billionaire for years but that has not been upheld in any of his trials on charges of financial misconduct. The documentary does not point out until much later that Mr. Travaglio is also a correspondent for L'Unit, which it describes as a small, leftist paper. L'Unit was once the newspaper of the Communist Party and the most powerful left-wing news organization in Italy. It is small, and foundering, but it is still financed by an offshoot of the old Communist Party, the Democrats of the Left, which is the main opposition party to Mr. Berlusconi.

One would think the fact that Travaglio is a partisan journalist for a party-run anti-Berlusconi newspaper would hurt his credibility. But no: That does not mean Mr. Travaglio's reports about Mr. Berlusconi's misdeeds are wrong. Instead it suggests what the documentary leaves out: that investigative reporting in Italy is so difficult and so unrewarding (Mr. Berlusconi in particular sues critics with abandon) that only the most passionate and partisan journalists make the effort.

In Stanleys jaundiced view, the fact PBS chose to use left-wing journalist Travaglio for its anti-Berlusconi documentary demonstrates Berlusconis suppression of Italian journalism. Sorry, but Times Watch doesnt see the connection.

For the rest of Alessandra Stanleys review of the Berlusconi documentary, click here.

Silvio Berlusconi | Italy | Media Bias | PBS | Alessandra Stanley