Major news organizations apparently expected to cover Operation Enduring Freedom as they covered Desert Storm a decade ago -- still fighting the last war -- with camera crews and klieg lights in the faces of bewildered Marines and their own star reporters competing to be used as transmission belts for enemy propaganda. Never mind that the nature of the war in Afghanistan and of the broader war on terrorism is radically different from wars of the past.
Some in the big media still view the U.S. military as they did during the Vietnam War: with undue suspicion or even hostility. At a recent Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism forum, ABC News President David Weston spoke sadly of the thousands of innocent civilians who died in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks but conspicuously failed even to mention those who were killed that day in the Pentagon. A student challenged Weston, "Do you believe the Pentagon was a legitimate military target?" The ABC News chief seemed surprised: "The Pentagon as a legitimate target? I actually don't have an opinion on that and it's important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now." He since has issued a national apology for such unfeeling remarks.
Yet Weston's gut response echoes what others have said in the past. On a 1989 PBS program on "Ethics in America,'' a Harvard University professor asked Peter Jennings of ABC's World News Tonight and Mike Wallace of CBS's 60 Minutes what they would do if they were covering a war and traveling with enemy forces who were about to attack and kill American troops. Wallace firmly stated that he would make no attempt to save American lives and "would regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover." The host asked, "Don't you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?" Wallace didn't flinch, responding, "No, you have a higher duty ... you're a reporter." That convinced news reader Peter Jennings, who conceded, "I think he's right, too." Getting sensational video footage of the killings of American troops would be more important than trying to save their lives.
According to a Media Research Center account, Wallace seemed mystified at the idea of being Americans first" and "journalists second." He countered, "What in the world is wrong with photographing this attack ... on American soldiers?"
National Public Radio (NPR), which has sniped at Operation Enduring Freedom from the beginning, has 13 reporters in and around Afghanistan and the Middle East. They are under standing orders from their editors to find and expose any U.S. military presence. "The game of reporting is to smoke 'em out" NPR Senior Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins said in a recent interview. What would he expect his correspondents to do if they found a secret special-operations team about to strike at the terrorists? "You report it," says Jenkins. "I don't represent the government."
Not all journalists covering the war take the cynical view of Jennings, Wallace and Jenkins. "Overall, the war coverage has been much better than I thought it would be" says Brent Baker of the Media Research Center, who has been monitoring press coverage of the war. "Most reporters have been very restrained and respected rules and not endangered the military."
When Clark Hoyt, Washington bureau chief of the 32-newspaper Knight Ridder chain, learned of the first super-secret commando operations into Afghanistan in September, he called the Pentagon for comment. An official there told him that publication of the story "would endanger the lives of the servicemen involved and compromise any chances of success." For Hoyt, it was a no-brainer. He sat on the story.
Forty other journalists from 17 news organizations -- including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN and, yes, even ABC -- knew that an early-October U. …