Flashback: Reacting to MRC, ABC News Chief Westin Apologized for 'No Opinion' on Whether Pentagon Was 'Legitimate' 9/11 Target

Reporting ABC News President David Westin's plan to step down at the end of the year, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz noted “some early missteps” during his 13-year tenure, such as “a comment after the Sept. 11 attacks, for which Westin apologized, that journalists should offer no opinion about whether the Pentagon had been a legitimate military target.”

That apology was promoted by an MRC CyberAlert item in October of 2001 which put into play an answer Westin delivered during a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism seminar. Barely six weeks after the 9/11 attack, Westin was remarkably reticent about expressing an opinion, contending that's improper for a journalist to do so – how quaint:

The Pentagon as a legitimate target? I actually don’t have an opinion on that and it’s important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now....Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be and when we get into the job of what ought to be I think we’re not doing a service to the American people....As a journalist I feel strongly that’s something that I should not be taking a position on. I’m supposed to figure out what is and what is not, not what ought to be.
After the Monday CyberAlert item was widely picked up (FNC's Brit Hume, plastered across the DrudgeReport, New York Post, lengthy discussion by Rush Limbaugh) on Wednesday, October 31, 2001 ABC News called to get an e-mail address to send a statement from Westin, which read:
Like all Americans, I was horrified at the loss of life at the Pentagon, as well as in New York and Pennsylvania on September 11. When asked at an interview session at the Columbia Journalism School whether I believed that the Pentagon was a legitimate target for terrorists I responded that, as a journalist, I did not have an opinion. I was wrong. I gave an answer to journalism students to illustrate the broad, academic principle that all journalists should draw a firm line between what they know and what their personal opinion might be. Upon reflection, I realized that my answer did not address the specifics of September 11. Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification. I apologize for any harm that my misstatement may have caused.

Monday, October 29 CyberAlert: “Pentagon a Legitimate Target?”

Wednesday, October 31 CyberAlert Extra: “Reacting to CyberAlert Item, ABC News President David Westin Has Apologized and Said 'I Was Wrong' for Having 'No Opinion' on Whether the Pentagon Was a 'Legitimate' Military Target”

A few weeks later, Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes recounted in the magazine:

...On October 23, Westin spoke to a class at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Asked if the Pentagon were a legitimate target for attack by America's enemies, he said, "I actually don't have an opinion on that...as a journalist I feel strongly that's something I should not be taking a position on." The comment drew no criticism from the students, which may tell you something about them.

But four days later, the Westin speech was shown on C-SPAN, where Brent Baker of the Media Research Center caught it at 2 A.M. Baker put excerpts in the daily "CyberAlert" he writes for MRC's website. Rummaging through the Internet, Brit Hume spotted the item and mentioned it on "Special Report" that evening on Fox. Two days later, the New York Post picked it up and the next day so did the Drudge Report. That alerted Rush Limbaugh, who devoted an hour or more to it on his radio show. With Limbaugh's show still in progress, Baker got a call from ABC. A reply would be e-mailed to him soon for posting on the MRC website. It was a total capitulation. "I was wrong," Westin wrote. "Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification."...
Westin's original October 23 answer, in full:
The Pentagon as a legitimate target? I actually don’t have an opinion on that and it’s important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now. The way I conceive my job running a news organization, and the way I would like all the journalists at ABC News to perceive it, is there is a big difference between a normative position and a positive position. Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be and when we get into the job of what ought to be I think we’re not doing a service to the American people. I can say the Pentagon got hit, I can say this is what their position is, this is what our position is, but for me to take a position this was right or wrong, I mean, that’s perhaps for me in my private life, perhaps it’s for me dealing with my loved ones, perhaps it’s for my minister at church. But as a journalist I feel strongly that’s something that I should not be taking a position on. I’m supposed to figure out what is and what is not, not what ought to be.
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