Cliff May

I first heard about the Newseum’s plans late last Thursday night when a reporter e-mailed me. He knew that the national-security-policy institute I head, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, holds its annual Washington Forums at the Newseum. As someone who spent most of his adult life as a reporter and editor (for the New York Times and other publications), I have a fondness for the venue. I was asked if FDD would be changing its plans for 2013.

It would, of course, be inappropriate for a think tank that opposes terrorism to hold an event at an institution that honors terrorists. But I said I would call the Newseum’s CEO, James C. Duff, first thing in the morning, in the hope that there had been some misunderstanding.

Mr. Duff did not return my call. I then called the Newseum’s spokesman, Scott Williams. He, too, did not call me back. I found this both ironic and troubling: An institution dedicated to the public’s right to know refuses to answer questions when it is the subject of a news story.

Later that day, the Newseum issued a statement saying that the “Journalists Memorial selection committee conducts case-by-case reviews” of the criteria qualifying those honored, adding that “Hussam Salama and Mahmoud Al-Kumi were cameramen in a car clearly marked ‘TV.’”

Is it possible that the members of the selection committee — I have not been able to find out who they are — have never heard of terrorists putting such markings on their vehicles? In this case, the letters “TV” had been crudely spray-painted in red on the hood. And, there is this easily researchable bit of background: In 2007, Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by terrorists driving a car marked “TV.”

Terrorists also have used Red Crescent “ambulances” to transport combatants and weapons, and established command centers in close proximity to news operations, schools, hospitals, and U.N. offices. To cite just one example: On November 19, 2012, four senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives took over an office on the second floor of a media building in Gaza where major international news organizations maintained offices.

Such use of “human shields” violates the most fundamental laws of armed combat, endangering legitimate reporters and other civilians. By what perverse logic would the Newseum — an institution that proclaims its mission is to educate “the public about the value of a free press in a free society” — reward such a practice?

On Monday morning, just minutes before its ceremony honoring a list of “fallen journalists,” the Newseum released an “update” saying that “serious questions” had been raised and, in response, it had “decided to re-evaluate the inclusion” of Mahmoud Al-Kumi and Hussam Salama “as journalists on our memorial wall pending further investigation.”

The keynote speaker at the ceremony was Richard Engel, NBC’s intrepid chief foreign correspondent who was held hostage in Syria for five days last December. Briefly addressing the controversy, Engel said, “just because you carry a camera and a notebook doesn’t make you a journalist. A journalist has the responsibility to seek the truth no matter what it is, even if the story hurts your cause. Journalists shouldn’t have causes. They should have principles and beliefs. But this is where it gets tricky because who gets to draw the line?”

Fair question. Perhaps we start with the assumption that when U.S. government investigators go to the considerable time, expense, and trouble necessary to designate a terrorist organization, they may know what they are doing. And then let’s continue the conversation from there.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.