Another look at the mainstream press vs. the military

A couple of days ago, Jay Tea mentioned the kidnapped New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell, who was freed by British commandos after he was captured by the Taliban while investigating the alleged deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians following a recent NATO air raid. Unfortunately, Farrell’s colleague Sultan Munadi, two Afghan civilians, and a British soldier all lost their lives during the raid. Yesterday, executive editor Bill Keller defended the assignment that resulted in the kidnapping, explaining that the story was “important” and that it “could not be verified by phone calls or the Afghan rumor mill.”

The scenario (a military strike force sent into enemy territory to rescue captured Western reporters) reminded me of this infamous incident that took place on PBS some twenty years ago:

In the late 1980s, public television stations aired a talking head series called Ethics in America … This episode was sponsored by Montclair State College in the fall of 1987. Its title was “Under Orders, Under Fire,” and most of the panelists were former soldiers talking about the ethical dilemmas of their work. The moderator was Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, who moved from expert to expert asking increasingly difficult questions in the law school’s famous Socratic style. During the first half of the show Ogletree made the soldiers squirm about ethical tangles on the battlefield.


Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening’s panel … two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes and CBS. Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading, the North Kosanese had agreed to let Jennings and his news crew into their country, to film behind the lines and even travel with military units. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, Jennings replied. Any reporter would-and in real wars reporters from his network often had. But while Jennings and his crew are traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by American and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly cross the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. 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 … Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question … 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” … 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!”


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, 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 1995. 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.” (emphasis added)

Even in the shadow of 9/11, not much seems to have changed. The Leftist mainstream press never loses an opportunity to demonize or pillory the military. But at the same time, they have no qualms about allowing — or even asking — the military to sacrifice its own men in order to save a journalist.

To me, that says a lot about the core beliefs of today’s Left.

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