October 02, 2003

The military and the media

From Joey the Lemur, via Instapundit, comes a remembered transcript from Sixty Minutes II:

Pelley - I spoke with a man who claimed to be with the Fedayeen & was avowed to kill American soldiers. He...
Bremer (interrupting) - Did you arrest him??
Pelley (clearly taken aback) - Uh, we don't have the authority to arrest anyone.
Bremer - Did you turn him over to the authorities or military??
Pelley - Uh, we're just here to report...
Bremer - Well, listen. Next time you find someone like that, call me & I'll come arrest him.

Read Joey's commentary.

I'm glad that they had the grace to broadcast Bremer's comments, but I'm not suprised at Pelley's actions.

In 1987 there were a series of panels moderated by Charles Ogletree, broadcast in 1989 as part of the PBS "Ethics in America" series. One of these was about "The Military and the Media". From a book by James Fallows, here is an account of the relevant exchange. Reformatted for easier readability, here is an excerpt:

[Ogletree sets up this scenario: Peter Jennings is 'on assignment', interviewing North Kosanese guerillas at war with the US.]

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 I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That's purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction."

Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. "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 saida 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. [1] "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. Retired Air Force general Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford's national security advisor and would soon serve in the same job for George Bush, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. "What's it worth?" he asked Wallace bitterly. "It's worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon." Ogletree turned to Wallace. What about that? Shouldn't the reporter have said something? Wallace gave his most disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms wide in a "Don't ask me!" gesture, and said, "I don't know." He was mugging to the crowd in such a way that he got a big laugh-the first such moment of the discussion. Wallace paused to enjoy the crowd's reaction. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given. "I wish I had made another decision," Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the last five minutes over again. "I would like to have made his decision"-that is, Wallace's decision to keep on filming.

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 [said,] 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." The last few words dripped with disgust.

Not even Ogletree knew what to say. There was dead silence for several seconds. Then a square-jawed man with neat gray hair and aviator glasses spoke up. It was Newt Gingrich, looking a generation younger and trimmer than when he became Speaker of the House in I995. One thing was clear from this exercise, he said: "The military has done a vastly better 'job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have."

[1] Jennings is now an American citizen.

The above explains why I've always had fond feelings for Jennings. As weak as he was in holding onto them, at least some of his instincts were right. Not mentioned in the excerpt above, but I recall the rest of the journalists starting out on Wallace's side.

Posted by jeffreyb at October 2, 2003 12:00 AM