Journalists' Misbegotten Sense of Duty

When media outlets publish militarily significant information and make it known to a wider audience (something they seem to do with more frequency during Republican administrations), they generally excuse their actions with claims that they are fulfilling an obligation to the public's "right to know."

Aside from the question of whether the public has a right not to know something, another question presents itself: are journalists obligated to be "neutral" observers, even to the point of endangering the lives of fellow Americans?

Marc Danziger raises that question in an editiorial at the D.C. Examiner:

I’ve blogged about the “journalist vs. citizen” thing. Let me explain through an anecdote:

In 1987, PBS sponsored a colloquium called “Under Orders, Under Fire” as a part of their great Ethics in America series (many episodes can still be found at www.learner.org/resources/series81.html). While the episode was about military ethics, the bombshell was a sidebar on journalism between Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace.

Jennings was asked what he would do if he was embedded with forces fighting U.S. soldiers - and became aware they had set an ambush for him. He replied, from a James Fallows article:

“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?” he was asked. “Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life,” Jennings replied.

Mike Wallace, however, disagreed: “I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” he 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 actually retained his 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,” the interviewer 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 quickly backtracked. 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. Does that bother you? In an era when Islamists publish “The Global Media: A Work Paper for Invading the U.S. Media, Prepared by Najd al-Rawi,” it bothers the hell out of me. Personally, I see journalists at the New York Times first and foremost as fellow citizens with whom I share obligations. The notion that they don’t see me the same way causes me a lot of concern.

In World War II, Ernie Pyle found and publicized flaws in our military — but he did it in the context of supporting the larger war effort. In Vietnam, Joe Galloway spent his first night in the field as a journalist manning a machine gun emplacement.

That’s not what we ought to expect from our media today. We don’t need journalists as cheerleaders (not that Pyle or Galloway ever were) or as combatants. But I do know that a lot of us would feel better about the criticism leveled by the media at things the U.S. is doing if we were sure that — in the event of an ambush by enemies determined to kill some of us — they wouldn’t just see it as a good story.

I’m not asking for White House-led journalism, just journalism from people who convince me that they really do have our best interests —as opposed to our best stories — at heart.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013