Saturday, October 08, 2005

Journalistic Ethics and Military Ethics

The topic of journalistic ethics has come up on a maillist of which I am a member. Are American reporters Americans first and reporters second, or does the job transcend the nationality? This is a fairly important topic for current and former military people, what with a war going on and all.

Consider this exchange on the topic from 1987:

Nowhere was this mindset more vividly displayed than in a 1987 installment of the series Ethics in America, hosted by the late Fred Friendly, former president of CBS News. Each program in the series featured a moderator and panel of experts discussing ethical issues in business, medicine, or what have you, and the topic in one episode was ethics in the military. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree was the moderator, and among the well-known panelists were retired General William Westmoreland and media heavyweights Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace. (Hadley Arkes wrote about the series in the June 16, 1989, issue of National Review. The series is available on video here.)

Ogletree asked the panel to imagine a war between the hypothetical countries of North and South Kosan. The United States was backing South Kosan, and indeed American troops were deployed in the field alongside South Kosanese forces. The North Kosanese offered to allow Jennings and a crew to film them behind their lines. Would Jennings go? Of course, he answered.

Then Ogletree introduced the ethical dilemma: While filming the North Kosanese, you see they are setting up an ambush for an approaching column of American and South Kosanese soldiers. What do you do? Would you stand by and film as the North Kosanese opened fire on the Americans?

Jennings pondered the question. "Well, I guess I wouldn't," he said finally. "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." He went on to say he would warn the Americans even if it meant losing the story, even if it meant losing his life.

But this admirable display of patriotic duty was short-lived, for he was then upbraided by Mike Wallace.

"I think some other reporters would have a different reaction," Wallace said. "They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover." Wallace was "astonished" at Jennings's answer, and he began to lecture him as he would an errant schoolchild.

"You're a reporter," Wallace scolded. "I'm a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you're an American, you would not have covered that story."

Didn't Jennings have a higher duty, Ogletree asked Wallace, than to roll film as American soldiers were being shot? "No," Wallace said. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"

Properly chastened, Jennings backed down. "I chickened out," he said. He had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached from the story.

After more interplay between the newsmen (the sage and the cub), Ogletree turned to another panelist, George M. Connell, a Marine Corps colonel in full uniform.

Connell looked at Wallace and Jennings as he might a pair of stains on his dress blues. "I have utter contempt," he said. "Two days later they're both walking off my hilltop, 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."

"Oh, we'll do it," Connell continued, "and that's what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get a couple of journalists."

There was complete silence all around. Even Ogletree was at a loss. Finally Newt Gingrich, then a junior congressman, summed it up perfectly. "The military," he said, "has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have."

What's the right answer? To be honest, I wouldn't expect Jennings, a civilian, to give his life for American servicemen. That's not the job of an ordinary civilian. Wallace's answer was unconscienable, and Ogletree's was brilliant.

On the maillist came this situation:
It is 18 April, 1942. You are navy CAPT Bill Wilson of the light cruiser, USS Nashville as part of Halsey's battlegroup escorting aircraft carriers
Hornet & Enterprise, steaming 600 miles from the coast of Japan. Your entire
mission success and the survival of LTC Doolittle's bomber crews depends upon
your ability to maintain/enforce security. Radios are to be assumed on any ships
you might encounter.

Situation A -- At 550 miles out, Your group encounters small boats clearly
identifiable as Japanese fishing vessels. You are ordered by Halsey to open
fire upon these ships immediately and sink them.

Do you fire upon them?

Situation B: -- The vessels are flying the flag of a well-known international
civilian Environmental/Peace group, which has publicly vowed to interfere
with any war activities in the Pacific. You are ordered by Halsey to open
fire upon these ships immediately and sink them.

Do you fire upon them?

Situation C: -- The vessels are flying US flag, are known to carry Press from
an American media organization with leadership having publicly stated their
intent "... to try to find where the Americans are. `The game of reporting
is to smoke 'em out,... We don't represent the government. We represent
history, information, what happened.' " The vessels are in violation of
wartime orders from the President of the United States to clear the area. They are
manned by US citizens. You are ordered by Halsey to open fire upon these
ships immediately and sink them.

Do you fire upon them?
What would you do? The comment section is open.


Walter E. Wallis said...

Yes on A out of necessity.
Yes on B anc C because I enjoy it.
I would re-up for C.

Darren said...

Walter, sometimes...!

Anonymous said...

1- Yes, they are legit targets.

2- Sink, no. Not necessarily, seize the ship, put the "crew" in the brig, "accidentally" destroy any material, reports, information, etc they have and then let them hear the battle from the brig. Aft wards, if the ship is still around, I'll let them go...if not, they can stay in the brig if/when we get back to port. But if they try to transmit a radio message out, fire for effect! :)

3. Ditto!

Walter E. Wallis said...

The friend of my enemy is my enemy.

Anonymous said...

A - yes i would fire... but I feel very conflicted about it. But I am a soldier after all.

B - heck yes. Freaking hippies deserve to die.

C - yes, with pleasure. I'd even have more fun than in B.

No, seriously now, I would not fire in A, B, or C. But I would REALLY like to fire in situation B, and more so in C.

The "debate" you discussed, that is so telling! Being a journalist is a higher calling? How about being a HUMAN BEING?

Darren said...

The debate also shows that journalists apparently see ethics as being situationally defined.

What if our soldiers defined their own ethics as "whatever I have to do to win"? I wonder what those journalists would think of *those* ethics? They'd probably think as highly of them as I think of the journalists' ethics.

Walter E. Wallis said...

You do not have to hate someone to kill him, nor do you have to love him to let him live.

The Smack said...

It is your duty as a soldier to obey any lawful order passed down from a superior. There is no room to ask why you do something, you do it. Reguardless of personal opinion, if it is legal to fire..... you fire.

Kalroy said...

A: Valid and legal target.
B: Valid and legal target, in that they have publicly vowed to aid and abet the enemy war effort by willfully interfering with America's war effort.
C: Valid and legal target, in that they have also publicly stated their intention to aid and abet the enemy by willfully endangering American servicemen and women.

Both B and C involve non-governmental organizations who have publicly stated that they intend to hamper America's ability to wage war and for C they have publicly stated their intent to report allied troop movement and information to the enemy (granted that's a logical assumption based on their desire to broadcast such information to ally and enemy).

I'd fire on all three in these particular situations, though the journalist and historian on board are safe since they'd certainly display both better sense and better patriotism.


Anonymous said...

All three scenarios involve legal orders. You fire in all three scenarios regardless of your personal feelings.
As an aside, the Japanes ship you mentioned, the Nattu Maru, was indeed sunk and several survivors were picked up including an American of Japenese descent who was forced into the Japanese Navy on a pre-war visit to Japan.