On Being an American Journalist. (Mass Media)

By Bell, Steve | USA TODAY, July 2002 | Go to article overview
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On Being an American Journalist. (Mass Media)

Bell, Steve, USA TODAY

THE BRUTAL MURDER of the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl may offer the last word in the argument over how journalists who are Americans should perceive themselves and ask others to perceive them. Are they American journalists, or are they international journalists who somehow remain detached and nonaligned as they report on world conflicts?

By all accounts, Pearl was a sensitive reporter who sought to help his readers better understand the "others" of the world. Nevertheless, he was kidnapped and murdered by extremists who didn't ask or care about such journalistic subtleties. They saw him as a symbol of the U.S. or, worse yet in their minds, an American Jew.

In 1970, my ABC News camera crew and I were held briefly at gun-point by the Viet Cong in Cambodia. We told our captors that we were international journalists" who tried to report objectively on all sides. There were no U.S. troops on the ground in Cambodia at that time, but our captors clearly saw me as an American and even assumed I was a CIA agent. After all, most of their "journalists" were intelligence officers. In retrospect, whatever their reasons for letting us go, it was in spite of my being an American.

The war on terrorism, triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks, has renewed the argument over where a journalist's first allegiance should lie. In a multicultural world where news organizations have international audiences, shouldn't news judgments be inoculated against the "cultural baggage" we all carry?

In an era of intellectual and philosophical relativism, the argument can appear attractive. However, it has run head-on into the blind fanaticism of the Sept. 11 terrorists on one side and a surge of American patriotism on the other.

ABC News President David Westin was caught in the maelstrom several weeks after the terror attacks. At a meeting with journalism students, he was asked whether he thought the Pentagon was "a legitimate military target" for hijackers who saw themselves in a holy war with the U.S. Westin replied that he had no opinion and felt strongly that the media "should not take a position" on stories they were covering. Later, he apologized, saying his answer "did not address the specifics of September 11."

The contrasts between covering the war on terrorism and covering other wars can make the nonaligned stance seem appropriate. In Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, the media needed to be accredited with the American military to get access to the story. In return for that accreditation, they pledged not to divulge information that might jeopardize U.S. operations or troops. They also had the bonding that came from being in the field with troops who provided for the journalists' protection as well as their own.

In the early days of the fighting in Afghanistan, by contrast, journalists were traveling into the country on their own, at great risk, looking for evidence of war.

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