Journalists Face a Test of Ethics

Mar 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The war with Iraq poses a wide range of challenges and risks for everyone in the media. Our thoughts are especially with journalists in the line of fire in the Middle East, whose safety is a primary concern not just for their individual news organizations but for all media.
The dangers aren’t only from being in the line of fire, but also from being in the region at a time when the war has generated a considerable amount of anti-American sentiment. Journalists leaving Baghdad have been held up for large exit payments by the Iraqis, hassled by bandits on the road to Kuwait and threatened by local citizens all over the region for doing their job.
To their credit, the networks and other news organizations have found new ways to work together, from making arrangements to share reporting to agreeing on a pool feed of pictures from Baghdad during the aerial bombardment. The networks also deserve praise for taking steps to ensure the safety of their personnel in the war zone, even when it meant in some cases leaving themselves without reporters in downtown Baghdad.
It is not just the physical factors, however, that have complicated journalists’ task. There is also an ongoing need to weigh operational security against the public’s right to know. And they face the tremendous challenge of reporting objectively when they are under control of the military, the same people whose activities they are covering.
We also sympathize with the Washington press corps, which finds itself under a more subtle form of fire, confronted with enormous pressure to play ball with the administration or risk being shut out by key contacts, denied access to officials or excluded from being among those organizations allowed to embed reporters with the military.
But in a war in which national opinion is as divided as it is on Iraq, the official line is clearly not the only one that must be reported. Citizens and government representatives alike have expressed vocal opposition to the war; those voices must be heard if America is to continue calling itself a free society.
So far those voices have been heard in the media, albeit often in muffled tones. The media’s job, in wartime as in peacetime, is to truthfully report what can be reported. But journalists in Washington and those who are covering the military action in the Middle East face enormous pressure to toe the government line and paint a picture of the truth that will help promote U.S. interests.
The Bush administration has showed little reluctance to use the war on terrorism and its sequel, the war against Saddam Hussein, to rally nationalism and drown out criticism of national policy. To that end, it has played the media like a fiddle, using patriotism as a prod to turn coverage toward the administration’s agenda.
In this difficult period, the media’s challenge is to find the proper balance between patriotism and truth. Like war itself, it is a battle won day by day and inch by inch. Ultimately, in a free society, it is a battle that must be won.