Skip to content

The public’s right to know exists even in wartime

November 13, 2001

Emotions run high in wartime, and people want the news media to behave and show loyalty. That’s why an offhand remark by David Westin touched off so much controversy. Asked if the Pentagon was a legitimate military target for terrorists, the head of ABC News said, “I actually have no opinion on that.” He has a stance as a private citizen, “but as a journalist, I feel strongly that’s something I should not be taking a position on.” Phrased a bit differently, Westin’s comment would have raised no fuss at all. Everyone would have nodded in agreement if he had simply said: “It’s not up to the news media to make pronouncements on which buildings in the U.S. are appropriate targets for terrorists, but if you are asking me on a personal basis, I’m as outraged as you are.”

But awkward phrasing put Westin in the middle of an unfolding debate over whether reporters can be truly neutral in wartime. Is the news business an American institution, fully identified with a nation under stress, or is it some sort of separate priesthood that stands apart and aloof from the national danger? That debate was framed by two extreme statements, one by a National Public Radio editor on the left, the other by Dan Rather (of all people) on the right.

Loren Jenkins of NPR said he would put a team of reporters into South Asia with instructions to “smoke out” any American troops and reveal their location. He defended putting U.S. soldiers in harm’s way because “I don’t represent the government. I represent history …” Actually history has not put Jenkins on a retainer. He represents only NPR, a reliable source of unrelenting left-wing bias.

Jenkins’ superiors apologized, sort of, for his statement. Revealing secret troop movements is one of those NPR ideas that would not likely arise in the mainstream media. But contempt for authorities in general and the military in particular (“They always lie,” said Jenkins) is a problem for some reporters. This attitude is magnified by the last two wars. In Vietnam, the military did tell many whoppers. In the Gulf War, authorities stiff-armed the press and kept reporters away from all action. So we have the makings of a stronger-than-usual confrontation between those conducting the war and those reporting it.

So far this potential for confrontation has been muted, to an almost astonishing degree, by the tide of patriotism and national unity. Dan Rather’s statement seems to make this clear. “George Bush is the president,” he said. “He wants me to line up, just tell me where.” This may have been an oratorical excess, or perhaps an attempt to deflect criticism from conservatives who have demonized Rather for years. Whatever it was, the statement was out of line. It is not the job of journalists to “line up” for war behind the president. The primary allegiance of reporters is never to government, but to the people, who are entitled to know many things that even the best of our authorities won’t reveal or don’t know.

According to the government, a U.S. Commando raid into Afghanistan on Oct. 20 went smoothly and met only light Taliban resistance. But Seymour Hersh reports in The New Yorker that there was ferocious fighting with 12 Americans wounded, three of them seriously. Which is it, and aren’t we entitled to know what happened?

One sign that the news media feel cowed is the lack of resistance to Condoleeza Rice’s suggestions on how TV should be covering Osama bin Laden. Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, wants the networks to abridge any future videotapes supplied by bin Laden and to remove his inflammatory language. But why? News executives are entitled to present an entire rant from the world’s most famous mass murderer if they think it is news. And where is the harm? Arab-speakers are going to see the whole diatribe on Al Jazeera anyway, and Americans are unlikely to defect to al-Qaida because they see an unabridged version of hate from the cave. The fact that bin Laden is trying to use our media against us is galling, but it doesn’t justify the government’s calling in network executives for “suggestions” on how to report the war.

The timid response of the news business suggests that reporters and editors are not sure how to act. They know they will lose much of their audience if they seem to be resisting pressure from Washington or dealing neutrally with terrorists. “We will do our patriotic duty,” said News Corp. executive Rupert Murdoch. CNN said it “will consider guidance from appropriate authorities.” There is something overly submissive here. Respect for the grave responsibilities of the administration is admirable. So is some sense of solidarity with Washington at a time of crisis. But the news business hasn’t found a way to say clearly that it expresses its patriotism by aggressively defending the public’s right to know what’s going on. That’s the job of a free press, even in wartime.

From → Media

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: