Oct. 1, 2002

Imparting the Power of a Free Press

SMPA Professor Brings 20 Years of Experiences to the Classroom

By Greg Licamele

As an investigative journalist for 20 years, Mark Feldstein has been beaten, sued, threatened, carjacked, detained, and censored. He’s won shelves full of awards, including nine Emmys that line the bottom of a bookcase in his office at the School of Media and Public Affairs. But now he’s back to the basics at GW, teaching his first semester of undergraduate classes as a full-time professor.

For Feldstein, the basics are alive in the tabernacle of free speech. In addition to teaching his journalism students how to analyze and synthesize information, he will emphasize the merits of a free press as the “oxygen of democracy.”

He made this point clear to the Egyptian government in 1991.

Feldstein reported on corruption in the US Foreign Aid program — specifically in Egypt — when he worked as an investigative reporter at CNN. “We found this boondoggle program that used millions of taxpayer dollars to build a housing project that, 10 years later, was vacant desert,” Feldstein explains.

When the Egyptians discovered his findings, they sent “minders” (or spies) to follow Feldstein and his crew. Then, as one cameraman was summoned out of Egypt, Feldstein gave this colleague their tapes to take out of the country. But as the team suspected, officials detained the cameraman at the airport and confiscated the tapes.

Feldstein met with Egypt’s information minister in Cairo for weeks to negotiate the release of the film. The official believed the story would make Egypt look bad, so Feldstein ultimately threatened to report on the country’s censorship.

But it still wasn’t convincing enough.

Feldstein brought the talks to an end when he declared, “OK, maybe it will make Egypt look bad, but that’s the price of a free press.”

“There was a silence,” he recalls. “It was really kind of chilling — I got goose bumps. And he said, ‘Alright, you may have the tapes.’ ”

Feldstein says he called into question the government’s commitment to a free press and democracy. “They weren’t used to a free press exposing this kind of thing.”

He has stood up for a free press throughout his career. He won a Peabody Award, the highest honor in broadcast journalism, at age 25 when he exposed migrant farm worker slavery in central Florida. The migrant crew chiefs beat him up — splitting his head open — but that wasn’t the best part, Feldstein wryly notes.

“The best part came when they were sentenced to prison as a result of my stories,” he says. “They were prosecuted for violating the 13th Amendment of the Constitution that abolished slavery.”

He says the awards are nice, “but when a polluter gets fined, when a violent migrant crew chief gets sent to prison, when abuses are rectified, when people’s lives improve, that’s the best kind of satisfaction you can ever get.”

Carl Stern, a J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs and former NBC reporter, recognizes the treasure of techniques and tales Feldstein brings to GW.

“Mark is the kind of person who should teach journalism because he cares,” Stern says. “He not only wants reporters to expose ineptitude and wrongdoing, but he wants them to do it in the right way. The ‘how’ is as important to him as the ‘what.’ ”

Some of Feldstein’s attraction to teaching comes from his father, who was a math professor at Arizona State University, Brown University, and the University of Virginia. Feldstein began considering the move to academia when he and his wife became parents. Plus, after 20 years of reporting, he yearned for a career change. He called Stern five years ago and asked what he needed to become a professor. Stern said he would need a degree beyond his bachelor’s in government from Harvard.

So Feldstein enrolled in a fellowship program at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) that’s designed for journalists to earn a PhD. Three years later, he had his degree.

“I didn’t really foresee that he would go off to UNC almost immediately and get a PhD,” Stern says.

“It gave me a larger theoretical framework for understanding many of the issues I had encountered first-hand as a reporter — libel, privacy, freedom of information, research methods, and the like,” Feldstein says. “And it allowed me to specialize in journalism history and freedom of the press, which I love.”

In Feldstein’s experiences, freedom of the press has caused anxiety for countries such as Egypt and also in Haiti, where he helped expose human rights atrocities by United Nations peacekeepers on “Dateline NBC.” But Feldstein says the US is not immune from free speech concerns.

“The danger in war time in the US, historically, has always been that the press tends to rally around the flag,” he says. “While I was at CNN during the Gulf War, we were heavily criticized for broadcasting Saddam Hussein’s viewpoints, such as the milk factories that were supposedly bombed by the US. But that was their side of the story and a journalist’s obligation is to get both sides.”

Feldstein and his students analyzed the media coverage of the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11 and found some excellent reporting, but they also found “flag-waving.”

“When you focus so much on the American casualties and not at all on any of the casualties we’ve created, it gives an unbalanced flavor to our own public,” Feldstein says. “That’s understandable by traditional news standards, but if you’re evaluating moral culpability, the fact that we create casualties, as well as experience them, is equally important.”

Important to Feldstein’s development as a reporter was his work at WUSA-TV (Channel 9) in Washington. His exposés of drug use and corruption by former DC Mayor Marion Barry and his administration helped the city and his career.

“There was a city bureaucracy that was incompetent to the point of callousness,” Feldstein says. “You had a lot of corruption — up to the mayor himself. I feel good about what I was able to do.”

As his students begin their journalism journeys, he will emphasize and repeat the importance of the First Amendment. But inherent in that lesson rests responsibility and accountability.

“You need to check out everything and do it skeptically, but that doesn’t mean cynically,” he says. “There’s an old journalism saying, ‘If you’re mother says she loves you, get a second source.’ ”

As a parent who’s been teaching the basics of life, Feldstein says he’s found some parallels about imparting the basics of his former profession.

“In some ways, it’s like teaching how to breathe or walk or something that’s so fundamental to your nature you almost don’t stop to think and analyze how do I do this,” he says. “It’s a humbling experience.”


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