Mike Wallace: Journalist First, American Second (with Vintage Video)

As noted by Tim Graham Tuesday in a NewsBusters item about 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace announcing that he will retire at the end of this season, “perhaps the most-recounted Wallace anecdote didn't appear on CBS, but on PBS.” Indeed, on an edition of the PBS panel series Ethics in America, devoted to war coverage, which was taped at Harvard in late 1987, Mike Wallace proclaimed that if he were traveling with enemy soldiers he would not warn U.S. soldiers of an impending ambush. “Don't you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?", moderator Charles Ogletree Jr. suggested. Without hesitating, Wallace responded: "No, you don't have higher duty...you're a reporter." When Brent Scrowcroft, the then-future National Security Adviser, argued that "you're Americans first, and you're journalists second," Wallace was mystified by the concept, wondering "what in the world is wrong with photographing this attack by [the imaginary] North Kosanese on American soldiers?"

George Connell, a Marine Corps Colonel, reacted with disdain: "I feel utter contempt. Two days later they're both walking off my hilltop, they're two hundred yards away 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." The discussion concluded as Connell fretted: "But I'll do it. And that's what makes me so contemptuous of them. And Marines will die, going to get a couple of journalists." (More quotes follow.)

Video excerpt #1, comments from Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace (3:10) Real (2.4 MB) or Windows Media (2 MB). Plus MP3 audio (560 KB)

Video excerpt #2, angry reaction from Marine Colonel George Connell (38 secs) Real (500 KB) or Windows Media (450 KB). Plus MP3 audio (115 KB) See note below about video quality.

These videos come from the recording in the MRC archive of the show as aired on Washington, DC's PBS affiliate, WETA-TV channel 26, on March 7, 1989. However, the show was taped at Harvard on October 31, 1987, and I presume first aired on PBS in the following months. The two-hour program, with at least ten panelists including then-Congressman Newt Gingrich, was part of PBS's Ethics in America series and carried the episode title, “Under Orders, Under Fire.”

On the videos, please note they were rendered from 17-year-old VHS video recorded in EP and then transferred to DVD, so the sound is a bit muffled, though I did boost the volume a bit in the rendering. The video was processed at 100 kbps, which is less than half the 225 Real/256 Windows Media standard NewsBusters normally employs, but this kept the file size reasonable and given the quality of the original the higher rate did not produce substantially improved video or audio quality.

Now, a reprint of an article I wrote about this PBS show, as published in the April, 1989 MediaWatch, a monthly newsletter then published by the MRC:
Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace Agree: Reporters First, Americans Second

In a future war involving U.S. soldiers what would a TV reporter do if he learned the enemy troops with which he was traveling were about to launch a surprise attack on an American unit? That's just the question Harvard University professor Charles Ogletree Jr, as moderator of PBS' Ethics in America series, posed to ABC anchor Peter Jennings and 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace. Both agreed getting ambush footage for the evening news would come before warning the U.S. troops.

For the March 7 installment on battlefield ethics Ogletree set up a theoretical war between the North Kosanese and the U.S.-supported South Kosanese. At first Jennings responded: "If I was with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans."

Wallace countered that other reporters, including himself, "would regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover." Jennings' position bewildered Wallace: "I'm a little bit of a loss to understand why, because you are an American, you would not have covered that story."

"Don't you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?" Ogletree asked. Without hesitating Wallace responded: "No, you don't have higher duty...you're a reporter." This convinces Jennings, who concedes, "I think he's right too, I chickened out."

Ogletree turns to Brent Scrowcroft, now the National Security Adviser, who argues "you're Americans first, and you're journalists second." Wallace is mystified by the concept, wondering "what in the world is wrong with photographing this attack by North Kosanese on American soldiers?" Retired General William Westmoreland then points out that "it would be repugnant to the American listening public to see on film an ambush of an American platoon by our national enemy."

A few minutes later Ogletree notes the "venomous reaction" from George Connell, a Marine Corps Colonel. "I feel utter contempt. Two days later they're both walking off my hilltop, they're two hundred yards away 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."

Wallace and Jennings agree, "it's a fair reaction." The discussion concludes as Connell says: "But I'll do it. And that's what makes me so contemptuous of them. And Marines will die, going to get a couple of journalists."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center