[FOUNTAIN]The meaning of ethics and press freedomTheodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, criticized journalists who importunately investigated political corruption as “muckrakers” during a speech in 1906. Mr. Roosevelt likened the journalists to the man with the muck rake in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and criticized them as seekers of scandals. Although Mr. Roosevelt used the term as a pejorative, “muckrakers” became a term to refer to investigative journalists seeking to expose wrongdoing.
The heyday of the muckrakers in the United States was the turn of the 20th century. Journalists and writers who dreamed of social reform competed to disclose corruption of the government and business giants. In ten years, over 2,000 articles and books were published to expose the misconduct of public figures and institutions. As Mr. Roosevelt pointed out, the boom of disclosures had the negative effect of being an irresponsible and excessive invasion of privacy. But in the bigger picture, the muckrakers undeniably contributed to the cleanup of the society and the development of journalism.
As the United States went through two world wars, the muckrakers lost ground. In the turmoil of the wars, freedom of speech was reduced. Seymour M. Hersh ended the long dark age of muckrakers with a grand debut. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, this freelance writer in his early 30s wrote an article that greatly damaged what the authorities called the national and public interest and won a Pulitzer Prize the following year. He disclosed that the U.S. forces were involved in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians, including children, during the war.
He reconstructed the atrocity that occurred in a village in Vietnam by researching many records. His reporting provided a chance for Americans to give a second thought to the meaning of the Vietnam War. Five years later, the famous Watergate disclosures of the Washington Post pressured President Richard Nixon to step down.
Thirty-five years after his reporting on the Vietnam War, Mr. Hersh, now 68, brought the atrocities in Iraq to light. In a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, he exposed a systematic assault on prisoners of war by U.S. forces. The veteran journalist’s disclosures in two different centuries reminds us of the meaning of freedom of speech and the ethics of journalism.
by Lee Kyu-youn
The writer is deputy national affairs editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.