Max Boot comments on the latest Wikileaks document dump over at Commentary Magazine’s “Contentions” blog and questions the American media’s patriotism – specifically The New York Times – when it comes to aiding and abetting serious damage to U.S. national security.
There was a time when editors and reporters thought of themselves as citizens first and journalists second. There were damaging leaks even during World War II, but when they occurred they were generally denounced by the rest of the press. We now seem to have reached a moment when the West’s major news organizations, working hand in glove with a sleazy website, feel free to throw spitballs at those who make policy and those who execute it. This is journalism as pure vandalism.
Citizens first and journalists second? That hasn’t happened in my lifetime. I refer you (again) to the famous “Ethics in America” series on PBS from 1987. (Pertinent text after the break.)
Granted, there are some journalists who do put their country ahead of their craft. However, they typically aren’t the people who make their way to positions of power in American newsrooms dominated by the political left.
Then [Professor Charles] Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening's panel, better known than William Westmoreland himself. These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace of 6o Minutes and CBS. Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading, the North Kosanese had agreed to let Jennings and his news crew into their country, to film behind the lines and even travel with military units. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, Jennings replied. Any reporter would-and in real wars reporters from his network often had. But while Jennings and his crew are traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by American and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly cross the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst, the northern soldiers set up a perfect ambush, which will let them gun down the Americans and Southerners, every one. What does Jennings do? Ogletree asks. Would he tell his cameramen to "Roll tape!" as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to ambush the Americans? Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question. "Well, I guess I wouldn't," he finally said. "I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans." Even if it means losing the story? Ogletree asked.
Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. "But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That's purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction." Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. "I think some other reporters would have a different reaction," he said, obviously referring to himself. "They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover." "I am astonished, really," at Jennings's answer, Wallace saida moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: "You're a reporter. Granted you're an American"-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. "I'm a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you're an American, you would not have covered that story." Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn't Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? "No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!" Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said. "I chickened out." Jennings said that he had gotten so wrapped up in the hypothetical questions that he had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached. As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, everyone else in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror. Retired Air Force general Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford's national security advisor and would soon serve in the same job for George Bush, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. "What's it worth?" he asked Wallace bitterly. "It's worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon." Ogletree turned to Wallace. What about that? Shouldn't the reporter have said something? Wallace gave his most disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms wide in a "Don't ask me!" gesture, and said, "I don't know." He was mugging to the crowd in such a way that he got a big laugh-the first such moment of the discussion. Wallace paused to enjoy the crowd's reaction. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given. "I wish I had made another decision," Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the last five minutes over again. "I would like to have made his decision"-that is, Wallace's decision to keep on filming. A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform, jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell looked at the TV stars and said, "I feel utter . . . contempt. " Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces--and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. The instant that happened he said, they wouldn't be "just journalists" any more. Then they would drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield. "We'll do it!" Connell said. "And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get ... a couple of journalists."
I'm luck enough to know some young journalists who reject the journalistic ideal that places telling the story as an almost paramount virtue--a virtue that often drops in importance if telling the story means hanging a source out to dry.
Journalistic ethics should not be entirely divorced from everyday ethics. That line about remaining detached is chilling.
Huh. Coulda sworn I put a "y" after the "k." Oh well. 🙂