In the Atlantic, James Fallows recalls an Ethics In America panel discussion on PBS in the 1980s.
First, moderator Charles Ogletree asked a former American officer who had served in Vietnam if he would, in a hypothetical situation in which he could thereby save American lives, if he would forcibly extract the necessary information from a captured prisoner using torture.
The former officer said he would, but other representatives of the US military, including General William Westmoreland, disagreed, and made opposing arguments.
Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening’s panel. … These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings, of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes and CBS.
Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading Jennings and his news crew got permission from the North Kosanese to enter their country and film behind the lines. …
But while Jennings and his crew were traveling with a North Kosanese unit… they unexpectedly crossed the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst the Northern soldiers set up an ambush that would let them gun down the Americans and Southerners.
What would Jennings do? 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 fire?
Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds. “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.”…
Ogletree turned for reaction to Mike Wallace, who immediately replied. “I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” he said, obviously referring to himself. “They would regard it simply as another story they were there to cover.” A moment later Wallace said, “I am astonished, really.” 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 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 “played the hypothetical very hard.”He had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.
As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, several soldiers in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror. Retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft, who would soon become George Bush’s National Security Advisor, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. “What’s it worth?” he asked Wallace bitterly. “It’s worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon.”
After a brief discussion between Wallace and Scowcroft, Ogletree reminded Wallace of Scowcroft’s basic question. What was it worth for the reporter to stand by, looking? Shouldn’t the reporter have said something ?
Wallace gave a disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I don’t know.” He later mentioned extreme circumstances in which he thought journalists should intervene. But at that moment he seemed to be mugging to the crowd with a “Don’t ask me!”expression, and in fact he drew a big laughâ€”the first such moment in the discussion. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given.
“I wish I had made another decision,” Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the past five minutes over again. “I would like to have made his decision”â€”that is, Wallace’s decision to keep on filming.
A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform. Jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell said, “I feel utter contempt.”
Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell said, Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forcesâ€”and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. When that happens, he said, they are “just journalists.” Yet they would expect American soldiers to run out under enemy fire and drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield.
“I’ll do it!” Connell said. “And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get . . . a couple of journalists.” The last words dripped disgust.
Not even Ogletree knew what to say. There was dead silence for several seconds. Then a square-jawed man with neat gray hair and aviator glasses spoke up. It was Newt Gingrich, looking a generation younger and trimmer than he would when he became speaker of the House, in 1995. One thing was clear from this exercise, Gingrich said. “The military has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have.”