Journalism, Where the End Justifies the Means, Part 1: Question in Kuwait
First, permit me to relate a personal experience.
A remarkable organization called CSG-West holds a workshop and week-long training session for newly elected state legislators, and I recently had the honor of teaching an ethics seminar to its attendees. During lunch, the group heard from a trio of news reporters, two of whom were insufferably smug and arrogant. “To be blunt, our job is to keep you honest,” one of them said.
At that point, I was forced to wrestle my tongue to the ground to keep myself from saying, “Oh yeah? And who keeps you honest?”
I knew the answer, of course: virtually nobody. The journalistic establishment makes up its “ethics” as it goes along, and when a particular reporter, writer, network or publication really crosses the line, the rest of the media studiously look the other way until and unless something happens to make them point out the misconduct.
A media firestorm was set off when a soldier in Kuwait surprised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with a series of questions about the lack of adequate armor on vehicles used in combat. The story landed on every newspaper’s front page, not because the issue was new, but because the fact that a US soldier asked the question gave it new urgency. Now the story involved morale and trust, and whether our troops feel adequately supported.
Before the day had passed after the accounts of Rumsfeld’s confrontation with the soldier had run in the morning papers, it was revealed that the soldier had not, in fact, spontaneously asked the question. Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Edward Pitts, embedded with the 278th Regimental Combat Team in Kuwait, actually seeded the question, as he jubilantly admitted in an e-mail to his paper:
So the question, in fact, came from the press, in violation of the rules set by the Pentagon. (It is not as if the press hasn’t had ample opportunities to ask “Rummy” anything they want, as he has been and remains one of the most accessible Washington officials.) Pitts said nothing, except in his private e-mail, allowing the story to go forward as a troop appeal, which it was not. The reporter, in Kuwait to report the news, had manufactured the news.
Not that it mattered to those watchdogs of truth, the national media. After running the initial story on the front page, the Washington Post revealed the source of the soldier’s question on page A-18 the next day. Even the editors don’t read that deeply into the paper, it seems, because the same paper featured an editorial about how “a soldier’s question” pointed up how inadequately the Army is equipped. No mention here of Mr. Pitts.The following Sunday morning, the talking heads were abuzz on TV about the armor issue, and if any of the programs referencing the guardman’s question mentioned its true source, it must have been while I was flipping channels in disgust.
Meanwhile Pitts’ editor, Tom Griscom, unleashed a hilarious torrent of rationalizations and spin worthy of Joe Lockhart or Tom DeLay. Yes, he said, Pitts is there to report the news, not make it. But “Lee has written the story about the armor problem several times, this is not an issue out of thin air,” he said. “We did a front page story on it last week and have done others.” (Rationalization: defining misconduct out of existence. As long as a story isn’t “out of thin air,” it must be OK to manipulate it.) Besides, Griscom said, the soldier didn’t have to ask the question. “It is appropriate to talk to a soldier about what he would ask,” Griscom said. “Then it is up to the soldier. The soldier asked the question.” (Rationalization: if someone else could have stopped it, then misconduct doesn’t count.) Besides, he noted, “the question drew loud and sustained applause from other soldiers.” (Rationalization: as long as it works, then the deception is justified.)
The American press at work. Glorious.
Griscom concluded with harsh words for the staffers at his paper that made Pitts’ e-mail public. The public, it seems, has a right to know everything except that the news media is lying to them.
The issue here is NOT whether Pitts’ question is a valid one. Of course it is, and he has written about it and, along with the rest of the press, has had and continues to have many opportunities to raise and explore the armor problem. The issue here is that this one more striking example of journalists misleading the public and manipulating the news to advance their own agendas.
The issue is that if we must depend on the press to keep our elected representatives honest, we are in great peril.
The press, it seems, does not know what honesty is, or why it matters.