The past two weeks have seen two high-profile incidents in the world of information dissemination: Last week, President Barack Obama fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal after an article in Rolling Stone magazine by Michael Hastings brought forth some eye-opening viewpoints from the army official. On Monday, Bradley Manning, a U.S. intelligence analyst, was arrested for leaking helicopter footage depicting the killing of civilians and two Reuters journalists in Baghdad in 2007 to watchdog website WikiLeaks. Where do we draw the line between what information is fit for public consumption and what remains sealed? Is there any such line? Here to discuss are Press editor Brad Pareso, senior editor Spencer Rumsey and Editor-in-Chief Michael Patrick Nelson.
Like the ol’ “What is pornography?” chestnut, this is a question brought up every semester in every journalism ethics class in the country: What are a journalist’s responsibilities during wartime? This is not unique to this war—it’s been a valid and vexing debate for centuries. Contrary to what Matt Taibbi or Lara Logan may think, it’s an incredibly thorny issue with no correct answer.
Genghis Khan never had to worry about his press coverage. He got the image he wanted, the more distorted with fear the better, because that suited his purposes. In a democracy like ours, the most potent military power on Earth, journalists go into battle unarmed because they are trusted with one mission: to tell the truth so people back home can judge for themselves how the overall strategy is working and whether the sacrifice our troops are called to make is worth the price. The Pentagon knows the value of staying on message; that’s why they spend billions on their public relations operation. Where the job gets tricky is when journalists witness something that violates the values we’re supposed to be defending. They want to be loyal to the folks protecting them in combat, but they report to the folks back home who are counting on them to tell it like it is.
Catapults, using bodies as ammunition—that Genghis sure was a pro at stifling the media. I think about the Hippocratic Oath doctors take before slapping the MD at the end of their names. Journalists don’t have anything so absolute, but we’re journalists—we’re in the truth-telling business. Why people like Logan are so puzzled when things like this are made public I don’t quite understand.
I’m reminded of that climactic scene in A Few Good Men, wherein Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup, pushed to the edge of tact by all this pinko “due process,” just starts ranting, infamously, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” I believe that a certain degree of military intelligence falls under the banner of “You can’t handle the truth!” And I also believe that, on some level, this is accurate: We, as a people, can’t handle certain military truths, especially during wartime. Still, when a journalist is forced to censor him or herself, that makes him or her the arbiter of truth, which is far too much to ask of any one member of the media. And if the military were allowed to decide what information gets out and what stays under wraps, we wouldn’t even know there was a war going on in the first place.
Having certain pieces of information kept up the government’s sleeve makes war a much easier pill to swallow, but a huge bout of hypocrisy arises when the same people who like to play innocent and naïve stand up and lambaste our officials for keeping the gruesome details to themselves. Similarly, we hear about people demanding the truth and then shouting out in horror when it gets reported. Who doesn’t remember uppity folks crying that all the reporting on our mission in the Middle East was revealing secrets to the terrorists?
When Daniel Ellsberg got the classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1971, the Vietnam War did not end. The establishment went nuts, but the republic endured. (We still had to live through a couple of more years of Richard Nixon, though, before he self-destructed, thank God!) Let’s look at these two examples here. Gen. Stanley McChrystal lost his job not because of what he said in the Rolling Stone piece but what his subordinates revealed about their attitude toward the administration and its strategy. The most damning thing the general ever did was cover up the death by friendly fire of Pat Tillman, and what happened to McChrystal? Bush and Cheney promoted him. Army Spc. Bradley Manning leaked the video of the accidental deaths in 2007 of the Reuters journalist and the civilians. That rightly questioned our rules of conduct. But then he bragged that he’d released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. So, what are his motives?
I’m not sure the motives matter. In a Platonic-ideal sense, if you’re a journalist, the objective should be to reveal the truth, regardless of how we arrive at that end. Unfortunately, the business is often a lot more complicated than that in real life.