Reporters And Citizenship

Marc Danziger highlights an exchange from a PBS roundtable discussion from twenty years ago that I remember well. James Fallows describes in hindsight a dialogue between the late Peter Jennings, then anchor of ABC World News Tonight, and CBS’s Mike Wallace about a hypothetical war they were covering.

With Jennings in their midst, the northern soldiers set up a perfect ambush, which will let them gun down the Americans and Southerners, every one. What does Jennings do? Ogletree asks. Would he tell his cameramen to “Roll tape!” as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to ambush the Americans? Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t,” he finally said. “I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” Even if it means losing the story? Ogletree asked.

Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. “But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That’s purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction.” Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. “I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” he said, obviously referring to himself. “They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover.” “I am astonished, really,” at Jennings’s answer, Wallace said a moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: “You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American”-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.” Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn’t Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!” Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said. “I chickened out.” Jennings said that he had gotten so wrapped up in the hypothetical questions that he had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.

A quite bizarre set of professional ethics, to be sure.

While I disagree with Danziger on the specific matter of the bank records surveillance story, we certainly agree on that reporters, like the rest of us, are citizens first.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    First, let me say I recall that one, as well. I happened to run across that one again recently on one of the local access channels, and was facinated to watch Jennings allow himself to be bullied out of his original position. Wallace, IMO was dead wrong in that case, as was Jennings, eventually.

    While I disagree with Danziger on the specific matter of the bank records surveillance story, we certainly agree on that reporters, like the rest of us, are citizens first.

    Quite… that is the reality of it.. and one that most ‘journalists’ refuse to face. And here’s one of the things that Rand gets wrong; there ARE in fact no disinterested, or ‘objective’ parties. None.

    But, in the ‘journalist’ framework, I guess that to cut both ways.

    Once we admit that there are no objective people, the only question remaining is whose side they’re on. Wallace clearly labels himself in this.

    To put a finer edge on this, I break out my 1956 Barnhart dictionary, welcoming you to ‘words mean things’ and look up the word “jouranlist” :

    “Someone who writes what they think and see.”

    …versus the definition of “newsman”…

    “A man who gathers, reports, or edits the news

    The picture I’m trying to show you here, with admittedly, marginal clarity, is one of a news profession which has moved away from being American and reporting the news, to being UNamerican, and writing not the news but what they “think and feel”… and writing with an agenda in mind.

    Thus, I think, do we see better, the reasons behind what laughingly passes for ‘news’ about Iraq, the Bush administration, and many more items.

  2. DaveD says:

    You are an American citizen embedded as a reporter with the enemy. You know the enemy’s best laid mortal plans against the men and women who are sacrificing their lives for the cause for which your country is fighting. You choose to give no warning of your knowledge. Is this behavior subject to prosecution? Is the threat to our service personnel the same as a threat to the “country” (civilan population, government itself, etc.)? Does a “journalist” get a free pass? Just asking.

  3. legion says:

    It’s interesting that they don’t even seem to recognize a possible third option – stop filming and get the heck out of there. It may be a bit of a coward’s option, in that it keeps US troops at risk while the reporters cover their own butts, but it also takes away the PR of covering the ambush the bad guys were hoping to get.

  4. Bithead says:

    Other option:

    Advise the Americans and film them winning against the attack.

    Gee. Do I have to think of everything?


  5. Anderson says:

    I’m confused. If America is fighting on the Southerers’ side, why are the Northerners letting us “embed” with them and film their surprise attack preparations? Wouldn’t the Northerners fear either that we’d tip off our compatriots, or at least that there’d be a spy among us?

  6. legion says:

    Yeah, the scenario is rather far-fetched… I don’t recall many reporters running around with the Chinese army during Korea or the Wehrmacht during WWII 🙂

    They’re trying to pose a moral dilemma – if you’re reporting on something that could be detrimental to the US, which comes first, your duty as a citizen or your duty as a reporter? Of course, some would argure that there’s a massive moral difference between allowing soldiers to be slaughtered and insisting that the gov’t follow it’s own laws, but that’s a debate for a different thread 🙂