It’s our job — and yours — to protect the public interest

Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

 Journalists and politicians both have a duty to protect the public interest. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Journalists, politicians and educators have a duty to inform, instruct and serve the people — not themselves or special interests.

The public interest concerns the general welfare of society meriting recognition and protection.

Journalists inform the public so that people are aware of anything that threatens their welfare. Educators enlighten citizens so that they can make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.

The Media Freedom Resource Center states that journalists should honor these core values:

  • Accuracy: Work should be based on verifiable facts.
  • Independence: Work should be done on behalf of the people, not special interests.
  • Impartiality: Reporters should recognize there is more than one side — and often more than two sides — to every issue.
  • Humanity: Reporters should show compassion in dealings with the public and acknowledge the impact of their words.
  • Accountability: Reporters should take responsibility for mistakes and apologize to anyone hurt by their actions.

These tenets also apply to public officials and educators.

When we lose trust in journalism, the general welfare suffers.

The Pew Research Center has investigated that in a video documenting changes in the industry that impacted how news is produced and consumed.

The video explores the impact on the public interest, especially with the prevalence of social media and political partisanship. “Trust in America, in institutions, in each other is essential to the functioning of U.S. democracy. Yet today, trust is declining.”

Law enforcement is vital in protecting the public interest. When they fail in that obligation, or act in a partisan manner, we fear for the general welfare.

Between 2016-18, FBI employees accepted gifts in return for leaked information about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails. She used a private account to send personal and official messages — a big story then.

An FBI investigation found that agents “improperly received benefits from reporters, including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events.” FBI’s policy designates who may disclose information to the media, but this was ignored.

Elected officials are responsible, singularly and collectively, for protecting the public interest.

It’s a federal crime to bribe a public official. Section 201 of Title 18 comprises two types of conflicts: bribes and gifts. 201(b) prohibits taking or giving anything of monetary value when the intent is to influence an official act. 201(c), concerns “gratuities” to gain favor for an official act. Bribe convictions are punishable by up to 15 years; a gratuity conviction, up to two years.

In the 1978-80 Abscam “sting” investigation, FBI agents posed as Arab sheiks bribing elected officials for political favors. Encounters were videotaped, as money was exchanged.

Some 30 politicians were convicted, including one senator, six representatives and the mayor of Camden, N.J.

More recently, former Illinois State Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to bribery. He received $250,000 to block laws that could hurt a red-light camera company. He agreed to cooperate with authorities but died of COVID in 2020.

The 2019 “Varsity Blues” investigation targeted parents who paid millions to help get their children into top-ranked universities such as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. Their entitlement deprived more worthy students of admission.

The New York Times reported that 57 parents, educators, coaches and other defendants were charged, with 54 convictions, one deferred prosecution and one pardoned by former President Donald J. Trump.

Then there is the case of Edward Ennels, sentenced to 10 years in prison, with nine suspended and five years’ probation, plus $60,000 restitution.

What did this math professor do at Baltimore City Community College?

Between 2013 to 2020, he sold academic access codes and received bribes in exchange for good grades. He concocted a fictional character who contacted students, offering to complete assignments for an “A.” Cost? $300.

“Ennels often haggled with students regarding the amount of the bribe, and set different prices based on the course and grade desired. For example, he would charge $150 for a C or $250 for a B or $500 for an A in a higher-level course.”

At Iowa State University, failure to report “known or suspected violations and crimes” is an ethical breach itself. The university is obligated to contact authorities with evidence of “fraud, conflict of interest, bribery, or gratuity.”

The vast majority of journalists, public officials and educators are ethical. Their positions in society are so vital that any infraction is scandalous.

As a citizen or resident, you have an obligation to protect the public interest. You should know about organizations that serve it.

The Iowa Capitol Press Association promotes and supports robust coverage of state government “for the benefit of the public.”

Parents or guardians of students who have educational concerns can contact the Iowa Department of Education for advice and procedures.

If you have a grievance about state or local government, you can contact the Iowa Office of Ombudsman.

If you have a complaint about attorney misconduct, you can contact the Attorney Disciplinary Board.

If you have a consumer or mortgage complaint, you can contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

If you have experienced discrimination, you can contact the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

Finally, if you have a compliment rather than a complaint about a reporter, teacher or legislator, contact them and thank them for protecting the public interest.

Memorial Day memories: Courage of war correspondents

By Michael Bugeja, Iowa Capital Dispatch

American soldiers move a wounded man in Vietnam. (Photo by and courtesy of Joseph L. Galloway)

I never fought in the Vietnam War. I joined United Press International, a worldwide wire service, in 1975 at the end of that conflict. My heroes were UPI war correspondents — Leon Daniel, Kate Webb and Joseph L. Galloway.

Daniel was a friend. He died in 2006. Webb was a role model and later, mentor. She died in 2007. I knew Galloway, interviewed for this piece, from his legendary combat accounts.

The word “courage” is derived from the Latin “cor,” or heart. Courage takes heart, physically and morally.

Physical courage is bravery in the face of pain, hardship, death or threat of death. Moral courage is a response to opposition, oppression, disenfranchisement or personal loss.

War correspondents typically display both types of courage.

Combat reporting in America begins with Thomas Paine in the Revolutionary War. Wired wrote that statues of Paine “should greet incoming journalism students” with his words “chiseled above newsroom doors and taped to laptops.”

Perhaps the most famous combat dispatch in U.S. journalism was Paine’s lead in “American Crisis, 1776”: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Joseph L. Galloway served as a war and overseas correspondent for more than 50 years. He retired as senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. (Photo courtesy of Joseph L. Galloway)

Galloway did four stints in Vietnam. He also covered the Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In 1998, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, with “V” for valor, the only American civilian to receive the honor. He helped rescue a wounded soldier under intense enemy fire in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang at Landing Zone X-Ray in Vietnam.

You can read about that in his co-authored best-selling book, “We Were Soldiers Once … And Young.” The work was the basis for the 2002 film, “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson. Galloway was portrayed by actor Barry Pepper, also known for his role as the sharpshooter in “Saving Private Ryan.”

Galloway wrote about the Battle of la Drang in Stars and Stripes, recalling the helicopter ride to the landing zone, where an understrength battalion of the 7th Cavalry was under relentless enemy fire. “It had not escaped my notice that I was now with the 7th Cavalry, Custer’s old outfit, and chances were good that none of us would make it out of this place alive.”

Some of the passages in his piece are horrific. Here’s one about the second day of battle when an Air Force F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter dropped two cans of napalm on the command post.

“The first can passed right over our heads and impacted 15 or 20 yards from us, right where two engineers were standing. Then they were screaming and dancing in the flames. I got up and ran into the burning grass and helped carry Pfc. Jimmy D. Nakayama to the aid station.”

I asked Galloway about courage.

Physical courage, he says, is the wherewithal “to stand firm in the middle of close combat; to remain determined to win in the face of a determined enemy and numerical odds.”

Moral courage for veterans “means a willingness to stand and fight for the benefits that were promised long ago when they were barely more than boys.

“All too often our country is more than willing to send its young men and women into harm’s way, only to forget them and their sacrifices when the war is over.

“It is then that the veteran must fight for what was promised: good health care for his wounds and ailments. Rights to a good education. Rights to a good roof to shelter his family.”

According to the Rand Corporation, 1 in 5 U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. “Mental health care can help, but veterans may face several obstacles. And even for those who receive care, recovery hinges on whether the treatment is high quality.”

Veterans have been struggling during the pandemic.

One year ago, because of COVID-19, the Department of Veterans Affairs suspended exams to determine eligibility, creating a backlog of 350,000 requests. In March 2021, Congress held hearings on how to address the backlog, temporarily depriving veterans of VA health care, disability benefits and other services.

Congress and the Veterans Administration must address this sorry situation.

I’ll end with a link to a poem I wrote in the voice of my friend, Leon Daniel, about the courage of my role model, Kate Webb, who visited us at Iowa State’s journalism school in 2005.

Webb went missing in Vietnam and was thought to be captured and executed by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. (She was held captive by the North Vietnamese.) The charred body of a white woman was found, and everyone believed it was Webb. Her obituary actually ran in the New York Times.

Then Webb seemingly rose from the dead, entered the Saigon bureau, and wrote a lead as resounding as that of Thomas Paine: “It was like a butcher shop in Eden, beautiful but ghastly.”

This year Webb was featured in a new book, “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War,” by Elizabeth Becker.

Memorial Day is May 31. Let us remember the soldiers who lost their lives in defense of America and the combat reporters who told their courageous stories so that we will never forget.