Journalistic independence: USA and Hungary

This afternoon as I was once again trying to carve a vegetable garden out of New England clay and rocks I wired myself up in order to listen to my favorite radio station, National Public Radio (NPR). As it happened, they were airing a weekly program called "On the Media," an informative hour on the state of the media. I usually enjoy it and learn quite a bit about the ins and outs of American journalism.

Today there was a five-minute segment that I found fascinating and relevant to my study of Hungarian politics. The title of the piece was "Pride and President," an obvious take-off on Jane Austen’s famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. The jist of the story is as follows. NPR, although funded in part by the government, is not very much to the liking of the current White House. Thus, although NPR tried several times to get a "sit-down interview" with the president, permission was not granted until last January. The White House had only one demand: the reporter should be Juan Williams, senior correspondent on "Morning Edition," the early hour news program. I remember hearing this interview, and I was somewhat surprised at the fairly servile tone of Williams. As the reporter of "On the Media" noted, Williams "served up several softballs" to George W. Bush. Certainly, Bush must have loved Williams’ performance because not long ago the White House offered NPR another "sit down interview" with the president, again, only with Juan Williams.

NPR declined. Ellen Weiss, vice president for news at NPR, explained, more politely than I’m summarizing her comments here, that NPR will not allow a politician to pick and choose with whom he is willing to have an interview and with whom not. A politician grants an interview to NPR, not to a specific reporter. One more interesting bit of information about Juan Willliams. He is, in addition to his job with NPR, a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday. If anyone is interested in the segment of "On the Media," he/she can listen to it here: http://www.onthemedia.org/episodes/2007/09/28/segments/86335. About Juan Williams one can learn more here: http://www.onthemedia.org/episodes/2007/09/28/segments/86335.

Needless to say I immediately thought of the time of the Orbán government when the prime minister gave regular interviews on public radio every Wednesday morning, and he himself designated with whom. The two chosen ones were Katalin Kondor and János Hollós. There was a similar situation with his regular tea-sipping interviews on MTV. He picked János Betlen. Needless to say, none of these people ever asked him any difficult questions. They invariably lobbed softballs, or as the Hungarians say, they served as microphones for the prime minister.

And, akin to the Bush White House, there are reporters that were and still are boycotted by Orbán. I think Orbán’s chief enemy is György Bolgár, but he also avoids all left-liberal papers. I understand that he and his party also blackball foreign correspondents if their reports are not to his liking.

One might say that this is simply political savvy. A government wants to put the best spin on its news and get the greatest exposure for its positive soundbites. When it comes to interviews, it’s only common sense to try to control the situation and opt for a sympathetic interviewer. The commercial radio and television stations can accommodate. Dick Cheney opts for Fox News and stays away from CNN.

But somehow one would like to have public television and radio be a forum in which issues can be intelligently and fairly discussed and where political leaders of all stripes would feel compelled to appear. In the United States intelligence and fairness are abundant; government officials are currently absent. In Hungary intelligence and fairness are in short supply. It’s really critical to change the tone of the Hungarian public media.