I want The Post to win the Oscar. Not because of the brilliant performances of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, or the directorial genius of Steven Spielberg. It’s the plot, based on real-life events, which fascinated me.
As a journalist who takes pride in being trained in the American school of journalism, I want the movie to win the Academy Award for the Best Motion Picture. I felt proud when Spotlight won it in 2015. The award honoured the Boston Globe’s investigation to expose widespread child sex abuse among priests. The Post shows the Washington Post and the New York Times fighting misdemeanours and corruption in high places.
These two films are brilliant examples of journalism and its role in society. Journalism is described as the ‘Fourth Estate’ and one of the pillars of democracy. US media, mainly newspapers, have been carrying out the role effectively. Some of the American newspapers are not just big names, they are flag-bearers of press freedom. Their approach is professional, and their commitment is unquestionable. Of course, they do have their flaws.
The achievements of the American press are enviable. Some of their exclusives and campaigns make me feel jealous, and I often ask myself: “Why can’t we be like them.” We, Arab journalists, or journalists in some developing countries, do not lack brains and funds. What we lack is a professional approach that encourages journalists’ talents to flourish.
Before jumping to conclusions and accusing some countries of lagging behind in facilitating a free press, let us examine our work. Are we doing enough to push the boundaries? Do we use our skills for the betterment of society? Are we fighting enough to get rid of the social ills? Are we self-censoring? The answers to these have to be seen in the social context.
In some circles, journalism is not looked upon as a serious profession. And local journalists tend to be overlooked. What’s worrying is the tendency of some Arab officials to give exclusives to foreign journalists rather than the local ones. Foreign reporters writing for the world, the news gets wide coverage. It’s understandable. But it undermines the local press. That exclusive could have given a local reporter a much-needed dose of confidence and helped raise the profile of his news organisation.
Journalists don’t figure on the list of well-paid professionals. It is no secret that some journalists work two jobs, or do some freelancing besides their regular jobs, to make their ends meet. So their regular jobs do not get full attention. When the priorities are not clear, how do you expect journalists to excel?
Poor pay is not just a disincentive, it breeds corruption. It is shocking to find that some journalists can be bribed. Expensive gifts are a form of bribe, but cash payments are beyond belief.
A colleague was shocked when an interviewee asked her how much is her fee for doing interviews. “My paper pays me a salary. I don’t take money from you,” the journalist said. “Well, some journalists do ask for money,” the interviewee shot back.
The greed of some journalists not only lowers the esteem of the profession in the eyes of the public, but also inflicts severe damage to the fraternity. And that’s troubling.
When journalists respect their profession, people react positively. But if journalists can be influenced, they lose respect. It has nothing to do with press freedom. It’s a matter of integrity.
A team of honest and dedicated professionals is integral to a newspaper’s success. Some work environments in the region and other parts of the world can be depressing, particularly when connections play a role in the hiring process. Creativity and teamwork suffer when currying favour pays off.
Here’s where the American newspapers make the crucial difference. They help create media stars by hiring staff who have the knowledge, contacts, skills and talent. They keep the staff happy too.
“Quality and profitability go hand-in-hand,” Streep, who plays Katherine Graham, the Washington Post publisher, says in the movie.
A colleague who is a former Post journalist praised Graham at one point of discussion, saying she used to show her employees that she cared about them.
The Post also shows the collaboration among journalists in rival newspaper companies, working towards the same goal. A similar incident happened in the region too when some international press outlets published some information that could be regarded as a major security issue. The authorities did not take any action because it was professionally executed without harming anyone.
That brings us to The Post again. Hanks in the role of Post Editor Ben Bradlee says: “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.”
Journalists are the eyes and ears of the world, and journalism is the “first draft of history”. In that case, we journalists should do our best to write the best, honest first draft.