Reporters and the military
The politically conservative blogosphere is humming with a discussion of the comments Eason Jordan may or may not have made at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. For those of you who only read this blog and no others (thanks mom), Mr. Jordan is chief news executive at CNN and it is being said that he recently accused U.S. troops of intentionally targeting journalists.
This incident is beyond any kind of ability I might have to add value to the story, but since I am on a press critique kick after my last post, I thought I'd toss in my two cents anyway. The whole thing made me think of an exchange on Fred Friendly's Ethics in America seminar from 1987 (feel free to e-mail me with a link to the whole transcript if you can find it - I could only uncover a few bits. Fortunately, they were the bits for which I was searching. Once again, the power of the Internet amazes me).
Anyway, I think the exchange speaks for itself. It was between the moderator, Charles Ogletree, Peter Jennings, Michael Wallace, and a Marine Colonel. Here it is:
Moderator: You are safely traveling with an enemy unit as a foreign war correspondent. As fate would have it the enemy unit you are traveling with is about to ambush an American unit.
Jennings: As a reporter you have to make the decision going in that there is a possibility that you may come upon an American unit. My feeling is that, as a reporter, you have to make that decision before you went. And that if you are in, you are in. I would live in fear of coming across an American unit.
Moderator: So if you made that decision you would then film the enemy unit shooting the American unit?
Jennings: No…I guess I wouldn’t. I’ll tell you now what I’m feeling rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with the enemy I would do what I could to warn the Americans.
Moderator: Even if it means not getting the live coverage?
Jennings: I don’t have much doubt it would mean my life. I’m glad this is hypothetical. I don’t think I could bring myself to participate in that fashion, by not warning the Americans. Some other reporters may feel otherwise.
Wallace: Some other reporters would feel otherwise. I would regard it simply as another story I was there to tell.
Moderator: Enemy soldiers shooting and killing American soldiers? Could you imagine how you would report that to the American people?
Wallace: Yes, I can. Frankly, I’m astonished to hear Peter say that. You are a reporter. Granted you are an American. But you are a reporter covering combat. And I’m at a loss to understand why, because you are an American; you would not cover that story.
Moderator: Don’t you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of American soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting the fact?
Wallace: No. You don’t have the higher duty. You are a reporter. Your job is to cover what is going on in that war. I would be calling Peter to say, “What do you mean you’re not going to cover the story.”
Jennings: I think he’s right. I chickened out. I agree with Mike intellectually. I really do. And I wish at the time, I’d made another decision. I would like to have made his decision.
Moderator: Colonel Connell, I can see the venomous reaction you are having in hearing all this.
Colonel Connell: I feel utter contempt. Two days later they are both walking off my hilltop and they get ambushed and they’re lying there wounded. And they’re going to expect I’m going to send Marines up there to get them. They’re just journalists. They’re not Americans. Is that a fair reaction? You can’t have it both ways. But I’ll do it. And that’s what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get… a couple of journalists.
Like I said, nothing I can say adds value to this debate, but I do want to point out a bit of background. Recall that Jennings is not a native-born American. He's Canadian. But he was willing to lay down his life for American troops until reprimanded by Wallace. Also, this debate was set up as a hypothetical Vietnam.