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?]