The other day, I was taking questions from journalism graduate students at Columbia College Chicago — a class taught by one of my professional colleagues Jackie Spinner, a combat reporter who survived mortar attacks, car bombs, the Battle for Fallujah (Iraq), and a kidnapping attempt outside of Abu Ghraib prison.
During the Q&A I was given a hypothetical by a student on what would I do if I was provided highly-sensitive or top secret information by a lieutenant, presumably in a combat zone. Without hesitation my reply was, as an American, I would never place our fighting men and women in danger. And if the information was of that nature, I wouldn’t use it.
Of course, if the information was about budgeting, malfeasance, or chronic equipment failure and it was confirmed, that’s something else. Again, if no troops came to harm, I’d take it to my editors to see what and how much we would write to expose this because those kinds of problems indeed place our service members at risk.
During the Q&A, however, I was reminded about an exchange I saw on public television in the 1980s. The guests were Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” and Peter Jennings of “World News Tonight.” The two journalists were following a panel of former soldiers who had just finished, and were still on the stage of the forum.
The journalists were given a hypothetical wherein they were traveling with enemy troops who were laying an ambush for an American patrol on a trail. The massacre of all the American troops was assured.
The question was, what would the journalists do?
Jennings said he would personally try to warn the Americans, even if it meant losing the story.
Wallace responded differently and said he and his camera crew were there to cover the story. Wallace turned to Jennings and lectured him that he was a reporter and that his highest duty was to report, not play the patriotic hero.
Jennings, unfortunately, backtracked on his response and said that Wallace was right and he should have stayed detached and he had lost sight of his journalistic duty.
The audience and those on stage were stunned, particularly the military personnel. Air Force Gen. Brent Scowcroft said it was simply wrong to watch Americans be slaughtered for 30 seconds of film on the evening news.
It’s a very good reason why my profession is below used car salesmen of professions most hated by Americans.
It is shameful for journalists to think that if they go out in the field they can expect our fighting men and women to come to their rescue or die trying when some would have no qualms of taking Wallace’s position. No, reporting is not the highest calling, being human is. And that means not standing idly by while watching human suffering and being as emotionless as the camera that’s filming.
There are some shining lights, however, that do stand out.
Joe Galloway, a United Press International reporter, who was depicted as the reporter in the movie We Were Soldiers did indeed help American soldiers of the Army’s 7th Calvary at the battle of Ia Drang, South Vietnam in 1965.
“I hear the command ‘fix bayonets!’ and seen men use those bayonets on other men. I had carried both the wounded and the dead, hauled ammo and water, and yes, on occasion, I put down my cameras and picked up my rifle and used it,” Galloway wrote in his memoir. He would be awarded a Bronze Star with Valor; the only civilian decorated with a medal for valor in that war.
I hope that today’s education of future military journalists doesn’t follow Wallace’s example, or Jennings’ retreat from his own convictions. I hope there is still room for the Joe Galloways in telling the story, but also being compelled to do the right thing when the circumstances demand it.
It takes courage to be a combat reporter, it also takes courage to be a human being.
Here’s the video of the Jennings-Wallace exchange: