John Leo
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.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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