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Toward a Compassionate Press in the New Millennium

North America | Media Ethics | TMP Archive

By Dr. David Aikman, former international correspondent for TIME magazine.

James Fallows, currently the national correspondent for The Atlantic, has a riveting anecdote in his book Why We Hate the Media about a public discussion of journalistic and military ethics.

The setting was Montclair State College, in the fall of 1987. The incisive moderator, Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, kept prodding the dozen or so panelists, most of them distinguished military offices, about their likely behavior under certain types of wartime conditions.

Then it came the turn of two journalistic panelists, Peter Jennings, ABC News anchor, and Mike Wallace, veteran CBS investigative reporter, to sit in the hot seat. What would Jennings do, the moderator asked, if he were invited as a journalist to accompany troops of an imaginary adversary nation called North Kosan on a military mission that would result in the ambush–and death of –American troops who were allies of South Kosan, a country being invaded by North Kosan?

Jennings was silent for about 15 seconds, Fallow says, then answered. “I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans,” he said, even if he risked his life to do so. Wallace immediately jumped in and contradicted him. “You’re a reporter,” he told Jennings. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.” Ogletree now turned his inquisitorial attention to Wallace. Didn’t Jennings have some higher duty, he asked, 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 proceeded to back-pedal as fast as his fluid diction would permit. What a terrible gaffe he had just committed, he confessed to the audience. He wished he could take back his entire performance during the previous five minutes.

Now retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford’s national security advisor and would later serve in the same job for George Bush, jumped in. “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?” he said. “Shouldn’t the reporter have tried to warn the Americans?” Wallace now dived into his maximum charm mode. Grinning broadly, and extending the palms of his hands in an exaggerated gesture of having nothing to say, he said to huge laughter, “I don’t know.”

But many people observing this conversation did not laugh. One was panelist U.S. Army Colonel George M. Connell, who all but spat out his contempt for the two reporters. If either were wounded in combat accompanying U.S. troops into battle, he said, his own men would risk their lives to bring the men out. Where was any sign of ethics and decency in the Wallace-Jennings response?

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