Journalists, for all the criticism they get for being too liberal, are very much like right-wing nuts in one significant way: They are very gullible to conspiracy theories.
Tell a journalist that the government is trying to prevent him from doing his job, and the likely response will be, “So what else is new?”
Many journalists are suspicious of the “embedding” policies adopted by the Pentagon, which permit reporters to accompany fighting units into battle in Iraq. They think embedding is designed to give a positive spin to whatever the troops do.
And some – judging from the e-mails from SPJ Ethics Committee members – are suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the shelling that left three journalists dead as Baghdad was falling to coalition troops.
Ethical e-mails were excessive in the first few weeks of the war in Iraq. The three big topics so far were Peter Arnett’s interview on Iraqi TV, and subsequent firing; Geraldo Rivera’s “lines in the sand” reporting for Fox News, and subsequent reassignment at the Pentagon’s suggestion; and the shelling of al-Jazeera’s offices and a hotel in Baghdad where foreign journalists had been congregating.
The majority opinions seemed to be:
Peter Arnett got what was coming to him, even though it seems he may have been punished for saying what everyone else was saying – but saying it in the wrong venue.
Geraldo Rivera got what was coming to him, because he’s more of an entertainer, a caricature of himself, than he is a real journalist.
The most recent deaths of three journalists, attributable to U.S. munitions, are regrettable, but most likely not the result of anything that was in any way intentional.
Of all of these, the Arnett case got the most attention. The man is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize winner. His reporting of the Vietnam War established him as an exemplar.
War provides a kind of drama that hasn’t been available to the news business since the end of the Cold War. There hasn’t been a lot of real news for a long time. That lack of other things to cover may explain why we journalists got so obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial, or Princess Diana’s death, or Jon Benet Ramsey and Chandra Levy and all of the other celebrity-centric stories of the past decade or more.
But war is about the most dramatic thing a reporter can report, and generations have made their reputations covering it. That description certainly fits Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War.
Arnett is a flawed icon, though. His story alleging use of nerve gas by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War had to be retracted. His redemption at the good graces of NBC and associates proved to be short-lived.
The anti-Arnett arguments were summed up nicely by Gary Hill, chairman of the SPJ ethics committee:
“Granting an interview without the permission of superiors, passing opinion off as fact, praising a repressive state institution that is at that moment jailing your colleagues is not ethical behavior.”
“It boils down to a labor-management problem,” said another.
The pro-Arnett argument is that he was just telling the truth. And if television is going to encourage its reporters to do instant analysis, it shouldn’t be upset if they give their opinions, even if it is on Iraqi TV.
“Had Arnett’s opinions been politically correct – the U.S. war plan is working wonderfully, the precision bombing is avoiding casualties, God Bless America – he would still be working for NBC and we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” said a defender.
Was Arnett unethical? Or was he the victim of unethical management?
There are three criteria that should be used to judge journalists’ performance – accuracy, fairness and objectivity.
The first goal – accuracy – is an absolute. A journalist who regularly makes mistakes will not, and should not, last long in the trade.
Fairness is harder to define, and therefore harder to achieve. It means getting the story from as many different sources as possible. It means talking to people the reporter may disagree with, to make sure all relevant points of view are represented.
Objectivity has lost some of its good name over the years. It’s the hardest to define and the hardest to achieve of any of these goals. No one is totally objective. Every person has a life. A parent has different reactions than a nonparent. An African-American sees things differently than a Latino.
Arnett has argued that what he said on Iraqi TV was true – “just obvious statements” that were widely believed among reporters in the field. His employers, he said, “let me crash and burn.”
What Arnett said wasn’t inaccurate, at least at the time, but it certainly wasn’t objective, either. And if it was unfair, it was unfair to his employer. He should have told NBC et al that he was going to do the interview.
Fairness suggests that the “friendly fire” deaths of the three journalists were accidental. But accuracy and objectivity demand that reporters continue to ask questions. Was there really sniper fire coming from the Palestine hotel? Were the “spotters” the military said were seen on the hotel’s roof really just reporters with binoculars? Is there any sane reason to suspect al-Jazeera got hit because Washington doesn’t like its reporting?
And what about Geraldo Rivera’s sketching troop movements in the sand?
Not much argument there. There was general agreement that “the guy is a buffoon.”
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.