The ‘Neutrality Fetish’ of American Journalism

by | Nov 6, 2001

To what do journalists covering this war owe their loyalty? The Journalism 101 answer is: to the story. But what happens when getting out the story means jeopardizing the legitimate war aims of the United States — or the lives of American soldiers? The answer to that question is: Some journalists put their country and […]

To what do journalists covering this war owe their loyalty?

The Journalism 101 answer is: to the story. But what happens when getting out the story means jeopardizing the legitimate war aims of the United States — or the lives of American soldiers?

The answer to that question is: Some journalists put their country and countrymen first — and some don’t.

On Sept. 28, USA Today became the first American paper to break the story that US commandos were operating inside Afghanistan. That didn’t come as news to the Knight Ridder news organization: Its Washington bureau had known for a week that Green Berets and Navy SEALS were in the war zone. So why didn’t Knight Ridder beat USA Today to the punch and claim the scoop for itself?

Because, wrote Bureau Chief Clark Hoyt to the editors of Knight Ridder’s 32 dailies, “When we sought Pentagon comment, we were asked not to publish the story on the grounds that it could endanger the lives of the servicemen involved.” Hoyt said he and his staff “had a conversation about it, not really a very long one, and decided not to publish.” The memo promised aggressive coverage of the war, but stressed that in one area the bureau’s journalistic decisions would be “very conservative — and that is reporting about . . . military operations when American lives could literally hang in the balance.”

Hoyt’s memo was quoted in a column written by one of the editors it was sent to, Walter Lundy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “He’s right,” Lundy commented. “We are loath to keep anything from our readers but when people’s lives are at stake, what’s to debate? You wait.”

Contrast Hoyt’s and Lundy’s attitude with that of Loren Jenkins, the senior foreign editor of National Public Radio. Talking with Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Jenkins said he had ordered his reporters to track down the American special forces. “The game of reporting is to smoke ’em out,” he said.

Johnson pressed him. What if NPR reporters discovered the whereabouts of an American commando unit and the Pentagon says that disclosing the information could put the troops’ lives at risk. What would the network do?

“You report it,” Jenkins replied. “I don’t represent the government. I represent history, information, what happened.” And the warnings from the military? Jenkins brushed them aside. “They never tell you the truth.”

That attitude — the story is what matters, not the servicemen — exemplifies what Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center calls journalism’s “neutrality fetish.” It isn’t just Jenkins. Last month ABC News prohibited its reporters from wearing US flag lapel pins. “We cannot signal how we feel about a cause, even a justified and just cause,” the network spokesman said, “through some sort of outward symbol.

When CNN’s Bernard Shaw returned from Baghdad in 1991, having witnessed the outbreak of the Gulf War, he refused to talk to American debriefers about what he had seen — because, he said, he had to remain “neutral.”

The most infamous expression of this neutrality fetish occurred during a PBS debate in 1989. A hypothetical case was put to Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace: You’re covering a war, traveling behind enemy lines with a “North Kosanese” military unit that sets up an ambush to kill a group of Americans. Do you film the ambush, or do you try to warn the Americans?

Jennings answered first. “I think,” he said after a long pause, “that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.”

That appalled Wallace. “I am astonished” that you would interfere, he said to Jennings. “You’re a reporter!” But shouldn’t a reporter do something, asked the moderator, when his fellow Americans are about to be massacred? Doesn’t he have a higher duty than covering the story?

“No,” Wallace replied at once. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!”

Jennings backed down. “I wish I had made another decision,” he said. “I would like to have made his [Wallace’s] decision.”

This we’re-journalists-not-patriots mindset has so far been largely absent from the current war. NPR’s Jenkins is an exception; more common has been the view of Tim Russert, the moderator of “Meet the Press,” who said in Boston last week, “We are journalists but we are also Americans.” A few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Dan Rather went even farther. During an emotional appearance on David Letterman’s show, Rather said, speaking of the president, “He wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

In times of war, journalists are not supposed to be neutral. They are supposed to be objective. They are supposed to cover developments fairly and accurately, convey information honestly, and report what is relevant.

But it is no part of journalistic integrity not to take sides in a war between the United States and a cruel, fanatic enemy. During World War II, Ernie Pyle and Edward R. Murrow left no doubts about where their sympathies lay. They were great journalists and great patriots. Then as now, it is possible to be both.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. This is an excerpt from his weekly newsletter, Arguable, and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe to Arguable at no charge, click here.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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