Oct. 1, 2002
Imparting the Power of a Free Press
SMPA Professor Brings 20 Years of Experiences to the
As an investigative journalist for 20 years, Mark Feldstein has been
beaten, sued, threatened, carjacked, detained, and censored. Hes
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 hes 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
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 Egypts 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 countrys censorship.
But it still wasnt convincing enough.
Feldstein brought the talks to an end when he declared, OK, maybe
it will make Egypt look bad, but thats 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 governments commitment
to a free press and democracy. They werent 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
wasnt 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 peoples lives improve, thats 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 Feldsteins 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 bachelors in government from Harvard.
So Feldstein enrolled in a fellowship program at the University of North
Carolina (Chapel Hill) thats designed for journalists to earn
a PhD. Three years later, he had his degree.
I didnt 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 Feldsteins 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
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 Husseins viewpoints, such as the milk factories that were
supposedly bombed by the US. But that was their side of the story and
a journalists 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 weve created, it gives an unbalanced
flavor to our own public, Feldstein says. Thats understandable
by traditional news standards, but if youre evaluating moral culpability,
the fact that we create casualties, as well as experience them, is equally
Important to Feldsteins 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
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
doesnt mean cynically, he says. Theres an old
journalism saying, If youre mother says she loves you, get
a second source.
As a parent whos been teaching the basics of life, Feldstein says
hes found some parallels about imparting the basics of his former
In some ways, its like teaching how to breathe or walk or
something thats so fundamental to your nature you almost dont
stop to think and analyze how do I do this, he says. Its
a humbling experience.
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