March 4th, 2013

Revisiting Wallace and Jennings, 1987

Yesterday commenter “Lizzie” wrote:

I remember watching the PBS “Ethics in America” episode where Charles Ogletree asked Peter Jennings & Mike Wallace what they would do if they were embedded with and the enemy, and they realized the enemy was about to ambush and kill American troops (detailed description here: http://tinyurl.com/bac57). Mike Wallace had no shame in admitting that he would just roll tape.

Journalists have fancied themselves separate (and decidedly above) the American public, and have developed contempt for America, her citizens, and their readers. They want to ‘tell a story’ (i.e. build a narrative) instead of just report because they believe it is their job to interpret the news for us dummies.

Well, if you blog long enough, you cover a lot of territory, and Lizzie’s comment made me recall that I had written a couple of posts on that topic over five years ago. I think they bear repeating. By the way, there were some major differences between Jennings’ answer and Wallace’s, and the interplay between them is an interesting part of the story.

[Here's the first post, updated a bit to reflect recent events such as Wallace's death---and by the way, the original comment thread is worth reading, too.]

We now know a bit more about the charges against Iraqi AP photographer Bilal Hussein. It seems that he was tipped off to a planned IED attack against US forces, and that:

…he was standing next to the I.E.D. triggerman at the time of the attempted attack, and that he conspired with the I.E.D. triggerman to synchronize his photograph with the explosion.”

“Abominable,” you say, “if true.”

Agreed. But I wonder what Mike Wallace would have had to say about it.

Mike Wallace? Multiple award-winning elder-statesman journalist, he of “60 Minutes” fame? That Mike Wallace? Why on earth do I ask?

Back in 1987, Wallace was a member of a panel discussion on military and journalistic ethics that aired on public television and moderated by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree. Wallace and Peter Jennings were the press representatives, and there were also various military officers on the panel, including General William Westmoreland, controversial figure during the Vietnam War.

Read this detailed account of what transpired, and understand how relevant that discussion of twenty years ago is to events of today. The first topic was a hypothetical dealing with the conditions under which torture might possibly be used by American military personnel; the second topic was a hypothetical about the duty of the press to warn US forces of an attack it has learned is imminent.

What is a journalist’s responsibility in such a case? It would seem to be a no-brainer, and in fact Jennings initially answered that a journalist’s duty to save the lives of American soldiers trumps any need to cover the story at hand “objectively” by simply being a spectator and recording what happens. Here’s Jennings answering the hypothetical about the North Kosanese (the enemy) vs. the South Kosanese (the allies with whom the US military is fighting):

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 Mike Wallace begged to differ:

“I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” [Wallace] 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 said a 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.

As do we, from a distance of twenty-five years.

It’s hard to read this without a cold chill running down the spine. How did it ever get to this point?

Oh, I know: postmodernism, reporters elevating themselves and their profession into “journalists” who stand above such petty emotions as nationalism—and even, it seems, their duty to prevent the killing of their fellow human beings. But somehow, that doesn’t really explain Mike Wallace’s reaction, or why Jennings allowed his own much better instincts to be overruled by Wallace’s amorality.

Wallace was not let off easy, however, by some of the military there:

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.”

And then there was a cameo appearance by none other than a fairly young Newt Gingrich, who summarized the situation thusly:

The military has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have.

Agreed. And that’s really no surprise, is it? The military’s job is to function in a violent environment and make split-second decisions involving life and death. They must train to think these things through in advance and in depth, so that the decisions they make quickly and under pressure will be more likely to be the correct ones. Too much depends on it to leave this to chance.

For journalists, though, covering a war is only a small part of what they do. It stands to reason they are too often thrust into that environment without the proper preparation. But that doesn’t stop some of them from arrogantly assuming they have a certain moral superiority by sheer dint of their ability to write a string of descriptive declarative sentences, punctuated properly.

There is a difference between Bilal Hussein’s alleged conspiratorial activities in Iraq and Mike Wallace’s hypothetical actions regarding the Kosanese, of course; the two are hardly exact equivalents. But the line from one to the other is not all that long, either.

And in a way, Hussein’s alleged actions would be the more understandable of the two, if in fact his motivation was allegiance to the insurgents’ cause. At least his actions would then be consistent with his beliefs. What was Wallace’s excuse?*

[And here's the second post, with a lengthy comments thread as well.]

…I urge you to read the comments section of this earlier thread.

One of the many interesting comments there was by Mitsu, who wrote:

…A sort of non-interference principle of reporting, that reporters should be out there to observe but not interfere with what they’re observing…Of course, this principle it seems ought to be superceded by the principle of saving lives — however, you might consider this argument (I’m not saying I believe it, but I am offering it). One reason reporters are often allowed into dangerous areas, even enemy territory, is that they are seen, basically, as uninvolved observers. For this reason reporters have managed to get information to the public in a wide variety of very dangerous situations. If reporters started to regularly get involved in an active way with what they were reporting on, this information flow might stop. They might become much more active targets than they already are, in war zones, etc. This would have the effect of making it much harder for us to find out what is going on especially in parts of the world where we’re not ordinarily very welcome.

I submit that, although this sounds very reasonable on the surface, on reflection it does not conform with reality. For starters, it is a fiction (born of arrogance and/or ignorance and/or wishful thinking) that journalists can cover a story by accompanying enemy soldiers on a mission and not affect that story. Their mere presence affects it by giving the enemy an opportunity for propaganda. Furthermore, in order to continue that presence and get further access in such situations, the journalists must be careful not to be too negative towards those who are kind enough to grant them the access, the story, and possibly the scoop (don’t discount the factor of the reporters’ own ambitious professional ends, either).

Eason Jordan demonstrated the compromises reporters made in gaining that glorious and vaunted “access” to Saddam’s Iraq. The old saying “What price glory?” could be changed to read “What price story?” In this case—and, I submit, in the case of the Jennings/Wallace hypothetical—the answer is “Way too high for the benefit.” The “story” gained is just as likely to be a carefully constructed enemy propaganda edifice, except for the combat parts.

And do we really need a description of a battle against Americans, as told from the other side by those who would fail to warn those American soldiers of what lies in wait for them? Would it not be enough to write about a battle from the US side, as was done with the embedded reporters during the Iraq War? Sure, it would be a fuller picture—and certainly an interesting one—to get reportage from the enemy side. But how necessary, and at what risk? And to pretend that such coverage can ever be “objective” is absurd.

The Wallace point of view reminds me of nature photographers who take those interminable films of lions stalking their prey and killing it. They never intervene; it would ruin the story. And, after all, nature is red in tooth and claw; survival of the fittest and all that. If the littlest and weakest member of a herd of wildebeest is taken down, it’s merely the operation of that process, and to protect the wildebeest makes no sense.

But an American reporter in wartime gaining access to the enemy for the sake of a story, and failing to warn American soldiers of an upcoming ambush, is no nature reporter. His actions engender a chill up the spine because they offend on both a gut level and a logical level. In such a case, objectivity is a phantom, the vain (in every sense of the word) pursuit of which leads the reporter to an ethical black hole.

[*I'm adding this in March 2013, because I realize that the answer many people would have today is that his hypothetical actions would have been consistent with his beliefs as a man of the left. How far left did Wallace lean? He certainly didn't think it was very far:

Wallace considered himself a political moderate. Wallace was friends with Nancy Reagan and her family for over 75 years. Nixon wanted him for his press secretary. Fox News said, "he didn't fit the stereotype of the Eastern liberal journalist." Interviewed by his son on "Fox News Sunday", he was asked if he understood why people feel a disaffection from the mainstream media. "They think they're wide-eyed commies. Liberals," Mike Wallace replied, a notion he dismissed as "damned foolishness."

Here's an article about the interview, in which the elder Wallace went on to add:

"Even a liberal reporter is a patriot, wants the best for this country," he said. "And people, your fair and balanced friends at Fox don't fully understand that."

Can't imagine why they wouldn't "fully" understand that, would we, after the 1987 interview?]

27 Responses to “Revisiting Wallace and Jennings, 1987”

  1. Oldflyer Says:

    A basic question, and one that Wallace and Jennings should have asked at the beginning, would be: “Why would we be embedded with enemy troops in the first place?”.

    If they chose to play the game, the hypothetical questions should have been extended to cover other contingencies. Suppose the ambush failed and the Americans were able to get the upper hand. Would they then be justified in gunning down anyone they found with the ambushers? If the American troops called in air support and the the ambushers were bombed and strafed, would the “above the fray” correspondents then rush toward the American troops seeking safety? How should they expect their fellow countrymen to treat them at that point?

    There were two war correspondents who were greatly loved. Ernie Pyle and combat artist Bill Mauldin never forgot where their loyalties were grounded. If someone else wanted to tell the German side of the conflict, then they did so at their own risk.

  2. G Joubert Says:

    So when was it, exactly, that Mike wallace, et al (the liberal MSM) began seeing themselves as not Americans, but as citizens of the world?

  3. OlderandWheezier Says:

    Excellent post, Neo.

  4. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Wallace’s implication is that the North Kosanese, or any of our other enemies, would have allowed him to report anything they didn’t like.
    Civilian massacres? Death camps? The slaughter around the Falaise Gap?
    So, no, we wouldn’t be getting anything of use as citizens. It would only have been of use to our enemies. Foreign and domestic.

  5. Lizzy Says:

    Simply put, Eason Jordan’s decision on covering Iraq was about money. This agreement ensured that CNN had exclusive coverage and was THE network to watch during the 1st Gulf war. This perfectly demonstrating that when it comes to journalism, their so-called ethic of objectivity can be trumped by business opportunity.

    We’ve seen this more recently with reporters and their bosses acquiescing to White House demands in order to ensure they retain access. We’ve also seen this at an individual level where reporters covering the 2008 election withheld details from their daily reporting so that it could be included in a book published after the election (see “Game Change” and any number of recent Obama biographies). In this case, their personal profit motive trumped their providing a full report.

    So returning to Mike Wallace, I think we can assume that at a part of his desire to not warn the American soldiers was based on him wanting to get a scoop on the “Americans Ambushed by North Kosanese” story.

  6. Sam L. Says:

    Why we don’t trust reporters, Part 598762211385841.

  7. Sam L. Says:

    Or those they work for.

  8. James Says:

    There was a time in my life that if this had taken place as described and they were discovered, I would have shot them and I still feel that way today.

  9. Ann Says:

    Two things jump out at me reading all this.

    First, that Jennings initially had an authentic human response of heck yeah, I’d save the Americans, but then caved in the face of Wallace’s grand-standing with “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!”

    And, second, the fact that the two of them weren’t hounded out of the business after such a display. Pretty much shows just how dramatic had been the change in the zeitgeist by 1987.

  10. parker Says:

    One word: despicable.

  11. Ray Says:

    Journalist ethics is an oxymoron. Remember when 60 minutes was doing an expose of automobile gasoline tanks bursting into flames during rear end collisions? Turned out they were putting pyrotechnic igniters on the tanks to make sure they burst into flames. Fake but accurate memos has a long history on 60 minutes.

  12. bob r Says:

    Article 3, Section 3:Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

    I am failing to see how Wallace’s answer does not “give aid and comfort” to the enemies of the United States.

    Neo: But somehow, that doesn’t really explain Mike Wallace’s reaction, or why Jennings allowed his own much better instincts to be overruled by Wallace’s amorality.

    Taking treason to be an immoral act, Wallace is immoral, not amoral.

  13. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States and some Canadian provinces Says:

    }}} I submit that, although this sounds very reasonable on the surface, on reflection it does not conform with reality. For starters, it is a fiction (born of arrogance and/or ignorance and/or wishful thinking) that journalists can cover a story by accompanying enemy soldiers on a mission and not affect that story. Their mere presence affects it by giving the enemy an opportunity for propaganda.

    Exactly. And that’s why, during WWII and WWI, there were so many embedded American journalists with the Germans and the Japanese.

    I mean, their names are in the historical record, they were quite important to the Americans’ knowing what the “other guy” was going through.

    FUCK the “OTHER GUY” and his tribulations.

    …With a big spiked club.

    You know where. >:-/

    And THAT is where both journalism and America have gotten fucked up.

    I’d point out that the Society for Professional Journalists removed “objectivity” from their ethical standards in 1996.

    Says a lot about the sort of journalism that’s been reported ever since, doesn’t it…?

  14. JaneLK Says:

    Truly excellent post, Neo. Very thought-provoking writing on your part; I appreciate your somewhat psychoanalytical approach mixed with the cold hard facts. What ever happened to simple human decency? Thank you for your continued great work.

  15. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States and some Canadian provinces Says:

    }}} Fake but accurate memos has a long history on 60 minutes.

    Indeed, I’ve known at least two instances where their lack of any semblance of actual “investigating” led to reports that I can only call travesties of disinformation.

    One was an episode where Ralph Nader, who had managed, in the mid-1980s to finally find out about the Kyshtym incident… which occurred in 1957. In the USSR. Naturally, the Soviets covered it up, but by the late 60s it was common knowledge among anyone with any background in nuclear power. And I’d read about it the late 70s as a college student, in casual science reading. But Nader, an “expert” on Nukes took another 5-10 years to encounter it (Nader KNOWS lots of people who SHOULD know far more about nuclear power… well, apparently, their ACTUAL degree of knowledge of nuclear power is ridiculously low).

    He got onto 60 Idjits and started screaming “cover up!!” as though it had anything to do with nuclear power. Kyshtym was a town near a set of Soviet nuclear weapon MATERIALS reactors having nothing to do with POWER. The Soviets, with typical concern for the environment, were dumping their waste products directly into the river nearby, then, later, into a storage vessel, where it was improperly monitored, which led to a chemical explosion of about 80 tons of TNT, and, of course, put a metric crapton of radioactive wastes into the air as particulates. It is classed as the third worst nuclear disaster behind Chernobyl and Fukishima.

    But this was, according to Nader, being hidden from the public by nuclear power proponents, and, of course, 60 Idjits made no effort to actually RESEARCH Nader’s claims.

    The second incidence was in the late 80s, where, according to a report, the state Board of Education of California had gone out and bought a new computer to be placed in every classroom, to enhance computer access. Sounded great, right?

    Well, unless you were actually KNOWLEDGEABLE about computers, in which case you recognized the computers being purchased as, not Macs, not IBM PC clones, either of which could be considered “industry standard“… no, what Cali bought were proprietary, and “incompatible” French Minitel computers. They were widespread in France, taking the place of phone books and had some computing capabilities, but were not compatible with the software standards used in the USA and did not have any actual substantial educational software even in France.

    But wait, there’s more — France had attempted to sell them in the USA, and, expecting them to sell well, had produced millions of the units… which sat in warehouses. Because no rational person wanted one, they weren’t notably cheaper than IBM clones, had backwards-ass graphics abilities, and virtually no software.

    So these things were basically BOAT ANCHORS in computer form. And the Cali BoE bailed out the idiots at Minitel who SHOULD have lost their jobs for the money they blew as a result of having no concept of the market.

    But, of course, 60 Idjits had no idea, and the piece just went on gushing for most of its 20 minutes telling the viewer what a wonderful thing the state was doing for its kids. :-S

    I’ll also note that Cali bought a metric ephton of PCjrs a year or two after this. Anyone remember them? No? Not surprising. They were the IBM version of the Minitels. Useless and wretched.

  16. Occam's Beard Says:

    Putatively American “Journalists” wouldn’t make an attempt to save American troops, citing a principle of “non-interference?”

    Then logically American troops shouldn’t make any attempt to save “journalists,” either. Mustn’t interfere with the news gathering process, right?

    As indicated on the earlier thread, when I hear of journalist getting killed, my give-a-damn-ometer needle doesn’t budge. At least to the “sympathy” side.

  17. Occam's Beard Says:

    “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!”

    The same reason a prostitute plying her trade in an alley would not interrupt what she was doing either. No. No. She’s a prostitute!

  18. Susanamantha Says:

    The death of journalist Michael Kelly in Iraq was a tragedy. I still re-read some of his articles.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: did you even read what I wrote earlier in response to you?

    What you have written is, to be frank, morally repugnant.

  20. Occam's Beard Says:

    Neo, no, I hadn’t read it, in honesty. But I guess to zeroth order I assume journalists are enemies of America, because it seems (to me at least) that the considerable majority of them are, and thus I feel little sympathy for them. I base this assessment on incidents such as that recounted concerning Wallace, whom I consider more representative of journalists as a whole than I do, e.g., Daniel Pearl.

    So while I take your point, neo, and am suitably abashed, on the other hand I would liken journalists to Germans during WWII. Sure, there are good ones in there – somewhere – but it’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for individuals who statistically are likely to be unworthy of it.

  21. Michael Says:

    “If the littlest and weakest member of a herd of wildebeest is taken down, it’s merely the operation of that process, and to protect the wildebeest makes no sense.” (Only if it’s not an “endagered” wildebeest” — Then, not only IT but its habitat takes precedence over all else.)

    Liberals don’t have a consitent stanbdard for anything…it’s all “expediency of the moment.”

  22. holmes Says:

    As long as it’s military men who are dying, they stay detached. But if it’s their party’s President who is in trouble, well, any weapon at hand.

    Excellent post.

  23. JJ formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    I stand by my comments made on the earlier posts.

    The MSM is not objective! Yet they claim (and possibly believe) that they are. Many low info voters believe them – unfortunately. It is one of the biggest problems facing this country.

    Jennings and Wallace are no longer with us, but their influence in the world of journalism is much, much too alive.

    In the previous threads McLovins was hooked on the idea of a “legal” war. As I pointed out: When we are attacked, the issues have been debated, and the votes have been counted; if the vote was for authorizing war or its cousin, use of military force, the war is legal. You may not like it and you can speak out against it and petition your representatives to change their minds, but it is still a legal war. Nations do have a right to self defense and citizens have a duty to support the cause that their representatives have set before them.

    The idea of embedding with the enemy is absurd on its face and follows from the Vietnam days when the journalists tried to depict the VC as “agrarian reformers.” The idea of embedding with an enemy is really an act of being used as a propaganda tool for the enemy. CNN did just that when it bent over backwards to keep journalists in Iraq to provide, IMO, propaganda for Saddam. All in the service of molding public opinion to follow the “correct” agenda. It has only gotten worse as time passes.

    What to do about it? Infiltrate the J schools with conservatives would be a good place to start. Convince conservative billionaires buy up major media companies and change their editorial policies would be another.

  24. southpaw Says:

    So ‘reporter’ is a profession so noble its only allgiance is to its own self-described sacred tenets? Imagine if other professions’ only moral boundaries were set by the practitioners of the profession. As an engineer, I could jettison the earthly unwritten understanding that what I design must be safe as well as functional.
    There are So many things we could accomplish if we didn’t artificially bind ourselves to safety principles, in favor of an optimized design. . Cars wouldn’t need to be safe, just get you where you’re going as fast and as cheap as possible.
    I don’t know how a person with an ego that big can live with themself. There are no adjectives to describe a person like Wallace. Parker is close, but you could fill volumes marveling at what’s wrong with mike Wallace.

  25. SCOTTtheBADGER Says:

    Wallace had clearly made the step that the SS Sonderkommandos had made, he stopped thinking of the Marines as people, and thought of them as it. By doing so, a person embraces evil, and journalism has done so.

    Getting the “scoop” in a situation like this can only be done for the purpuse of enhancing the reporter, granting him greater power, and money, in the future, ethics are immaterial.

  26. thomass Says:

    “And in a way, Hussein’s alleged actions would be the more understandable of the two, if in fact his motivation was allegiance to the insurgents’ cause. At least his actions would then be consistent with his beliefs.”

    It would also make him a valid military target imo.

  27. Teri Pittman Says:

    And, of course, we can now see what bogus liars they were. If there is some “journalistic calling”, then reporters would be expected to cover a story, regardless of their personal beliefs. We now have journalists as the propaganda wing of the Democratic party.

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