"No, You Don't Have A Higher Duty...You're A Reporter"

Last year, Bill Kristol described one of the knocks against what Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation”–they begat the morally soft Baby Boomer generation, who took for granted the comforts their parents fought so hard for:


There really was greatness in the “greatest generation.” It fought and won World War II, then came home to achieve widespread prosperity and overcome segregation while seeing the Cold War through to a successful conclusion. But the greatest generation had one flaw, its greatest flaw, you might say: It begat the baby boomers.

The most prominent of the boomers spent their youth scorning those of their compatriots who fought communism, while moralizing and posturing at no cost to themselves. They went on to enjoy the benefits of their parents’ labors, sacrificed little, and produced nothing particularly notable. But the boomers were unparalleled when it came to self-glorification, a talent they began developing as teenagers and have continued to improve up to this day.

But to be fair, the vast majority of the men who came back from WWII were (like my father) decent, morally upright guys who returned from their service with the love of their country strengthened. And it’s tough to truly fault them for wanting to give their kids a softer life than they had witnessed in the 1930s and ’40s.

On the hand, when your dad says something like this

In a future war involving U.S. soldiers what would a TV reporter do if he learned the enemy troops with which he was traveling were about to launch a surprise attack on an American unit? That’s just the question Harvard University professor Charles Ogletree Jr, as moderator of PBS’ Ethics in America series, posed to ABC anchor Peter Jennings and 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace. Both agreed getting ambush footage for the evening news would come before warning the U.S. troops.

For the March 7 installment on battlefield ethics Ogletree set up a theoretical war between the North Kosanese and the U.S.-supported South Kosanese. At first Jennings responded: “If I was with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.”

Wallace countered that other reporters, including himself, “would regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover.” Jennings’ position bewildered Wallace: “I’m a little bit of a loss to understand why, because you are an American, you would not have covered that story.”

“Don’t you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?” Ogletree asked. Without hesitating Wallace responded: “No, you don’t have higher duty… you’re a reporter.” This convinces Jennings, who concedes, “I think he’s right too, I chickened out.”

Ogletree turns to Brent Scrowcroft, now the National Security Adviser, who argues “you’re Americans first, and you’re journalists second.” Wallace is mystified by the concept, wondering “what in the world is wrong with photographing this attack by North Kosanese on American soldiers?” Retired General William Westmoreland then points out that “it would be repugnant to the American listening public to see on film an ambush of an American platoon by our national enemy.”

A few minutes later Ogletree notes the “venomous reaction” from George Connell, a Marine Corps Colonel. “I feel utter contempt. Two days later they’re both walking off my hilltop, they’re two hundred yards away and they get ambushed. And they’re lying there wounded. And they’re going to expect I’m going to send Marines up there to get them. They’re just journalists, they’re not Americans.”

Wallace and Jennings agree, “it’s a fair reaction.”


…Perhaps it explains why Mike Wallace’s son has a far more reasoned sense of ethics than his dad.

(More here.)

Update: I’ve mentioned the Wallace/Jennings moment from 1989 a few times here, simply because (a) I remember watching it when it first aired and (b) it encapsulates perfectly the mindset of Old Media, who see themselves as transnationalists very much aloof from their own country–or any country. I’m glad to see that someone has uploaded the exchange to YouTube, which you can watch, here.


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