Journalists' neutrality tips scales against USA

Posted: Nov 05, 2001 12:00 AM
Are journalists Americans? Ask this sort of question of the vast majority of columnists, editors, sports, automotive or real estate reporters in this country and they will say, "Hell, yes, we're Americans." You could even get a punch in the nose from some of them for your troubles. But ask the most successful journalists in the nation the same question, especially in an academic setting, and you'll get a very different answer. Just this week David Westin, president of ABC News, was asked if the Pentagon was a legitimate target on Sept. 11. "I actually don't have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now. The way I conceive my job ... and the way I would like all the journalists at ABC News to perceive it, is there is a big difference between a normative position and a positive position." "I can say the Pentagon got hit. I can say this is what their position is, this is what our position is, but for me to take a position this was right or wrong, I mean that's perhaps for me in my private life. ... But as a journalist I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on." Westin's gaffe wasn't that he misspoke, but that he actually got caught voicing what most elite journalists think is the enlightened way to see the world. The most famous example of this sort of thing is over a decade old. At a seminar filmed in 1987 for a PBS series called "Ethics in America," Peter Jennings of ABC News and Mike Wallace of CBS' 60 Minutes agreed that reporters shouldn't be distracted by loyalty to their own country. Placed in a hypothetical scenario of travelling with enemy troops during a Vietnam-like war, Wallace and Jennings were asked if they would warn American soldiers walking into an impending ambush. At first Jennings said he would warn them, but famously switched his position after Wallace lectured him about what it means to be a journalist. When Wallace was asked if he had any higher duty as an American, to save American lives rather than get 30 seconds of footage for the nightly news, he replied instantly, "No. You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!" As recently as 1998, at a seminar at the University of Michigan, Wallace continued to insist, "I'm not an American first, I'm a reporter first." This isn't merely the stuff of academic symposia. CNN and the Reuters News Service have announced their reluctance to use the word "terrorist" when discussing Osama bin Laden & Co. (CNN backpedaled after much public criticism). Tom Brokaw, who has made piles of money from his admirable, wildly pro-American "Greatest Generation" books about WWII, agrees with news network execs who've banned reporters from wearing American flags. "I don't think a journalist ought to be wearing a flag, because it does seem to be, to me at least, a sign of solidarity toward whatever the government is doing, and that is not our role." Walter Isaacson, the head of CNN, felt compelled to issue a staff memo saying, "We must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting" the Taliban's version of the war. There are many factors contributing to this sorry state. Some aren't even that damning. CNN, for example, is a global news network and, hence, has to walk a fine line with non-American audiences. Also, many celebrity journalists, traveling hither and yon, live like citizens of the world, understandably causing them to lose some of their national attachments. But most of the explanations are damning. Despite all of these seminars, journalists have become blind to the difference between objectivity and neutrality. An objective reporter is fair to the facts of a story; a neutral reporter believes all facts are equal, a hallmark of moral relativism. Just because it's a fact that the Taliban say America is a terrorist nation doesn't make us one. A fair reporter recognizes that. Take this flag thing. Brokaw doesn't want reporters to wear a tiny little flag. OK. But, remember, the heroic journalists of the "Greatest Generation" reported the war while wearing (ital) American (end ital) uniforms. Was a uniformed Walter Cronkite showing too much "solidarity" with the government? A neutral reporter - the kind Westin and Brokaw prefer - not only wouldn't wear a uniform, he would be appalled at the idea of drawing any moral conclusions about the Nazis. And then there's the simple fact that elite journalists find patriotism itself unfashionable. One telling example: When the writer I.F. Stone died, Peter Jennings dubbed him a "journalist's journalist." The Los Angeles Times said he was "the conscience of investigative journalism." Well, I.F. Stone was also a life-long Communist propagandist who apologized for Stalin's murders, praised North Vietnam, Castro and Mao while fraudulently accusing the United States of, among other crimes, using chemical weapons in Korea. Now, I don't think our leading journalists share Stone's views. But there is a vestigial attitude, reflected in the fact that Stone is such a role model, which seems to hold that America is more likely to be wrong than right. When journalists' goal is complete neutrality, that's more than enough to tip the scales against America.