Current Comment

Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council of the United Nations has finally become a reality. After months of negotiations, the U.N. General Assembly voted on March 15 to accept a resolution creating a new body to replace the Human Rights Commission, discredited because it granted membership to some of the world’s most abusive regimes. Members have included, for instance, Sudan, which continues to carry out genocide in the Darfur region. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has acknowledged that the resolution is not as strong as he and others had wished, but its provisions at least require that nations’ human rights records be scrutinized in an effort to deter those responsible for serious rights violations from becoming members. In defending the draft of the resolution, Mr. Annan observed that we should not let the better be the enemy of the good.

The criticism of the new council by John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been especially strong. The council, he has said, is only marginally better than its predecessor. Nevertheless, the Bush administration is indicating that it will help fund the new council, and possibly seek to join it. As a major donor, the United States is almost assured membership. In the minds of many, however, the presence of the United States on the council would border on hypocrisy. Through its violations at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, as well as through its practice of rendition, the United States’ own reputation as a defender of human rights has been badly damaged.

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Less News Fit to Print

Once again the newsroom has lost out to the boardroom. The McClatchy Company, owner of The Sacramento Bee, purchased the Knight Ridder newspapers on March 14 for $4 billion. McClatchy was a buyer of last resort; no other publishers bid for the property. It immediately announced it will sell off 12 of the 32 new properties, including better-known newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer and The San Jose Mercury News. It plans to retain less prestigious but more profitable papers in expanding markets. Knight Ridder’s problem? Stock analysts felt its annual profit did not meet their expectations. One longs for the days when newspaper-owning families understood that profit and public service could work together.

The Knight Ridder purchase coincided with the publication of a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism on the rapid decline of the news business in the United States. Most startling is the loss of hard reporting. In Philadelphia, for example, 280 of 500 reporting jobs have been lost in the last 25 years. This year The New York Times has cut its newsroom staffs by 60 positions and The Washington Post has announced plans to cut 80 more jobs. As cable outlets, Web services and blogs multiply, hard news has been replaced by punditry, infotainment and endless recycling of the same few stories.

Reform has to begin in the boardrooms, business schools and the business press, with recognition that the communications industry has a public trust as well as bottom-line responsibilities. Without the press to hold government, business and other institutions accountable, the United States will cease to function as a working democracy. Without hard reporting, informed analysis and in-depth backgrounders, the country will also lose its edge in a global economy.

March Madness

Among the annual athletic rituals that television brings to American viewers, the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, stretching over three long weekends in March, is without rival. No professional sports championshipneither the World Series of baseball, nor the National Football League playoffsexercises such a sustained hold on the imagination of the nation’s athletic couch potatoes.

The hundreds of millions of dollars associated with such television coverage challenges the distinction between amateur and professional athletics. There are commercial opportunities for successful coaches, who are already among the highest paid individuals on campus. And for the student-athletes themselves, the tournament provides a showcase for talent.

A series of articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post provided a sobering counterpoint to our national enthusiasm. The reports concerned a special set of institutions that groom outstanding basketball talents for Division One college programs. These prep schools are schools in name only, without accreditation and with minimal academic requirements. For inner-city youngsters blessed with vertical leaping ability and for recruits from impoverished countries like Senegal, these prep schools hold out the promise of a dream but offer no preparation for life. While the N.C.A.A. ponders how to distribute its television revenues, it should make sure that none of its member institutions are partners in this fraud.

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