TCS Daily

Sympathy for the Devil?

By Eric Cox - March 26, 2003 12:00 AM

On the many television programs in which journalists talk to each other, a disturbing discussion has been taking place about the Pentagon's unprecedented policy of "embedding" reporters with military units on the battlefield. Some critics are raising concerns that reporters might actually sympathize with the American soldiers they observe in combat.

Journalists had demanded unfettered access to the battlefield for years. When the Pentagon unexpectedly said before this war began that it would give such access to them, reporters began worrying in advance about whether their reports would be censored by the commanders of the units with whom they were embedded.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr voiced these concerns on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on February 18, during an interview conducted by the NewsHour's Terrence Smith:
BARBARA STARR: The key issue is the individual commander out on the battlefield who is taking reporters to the front lines with him, whether or not that individual commander is going to feel comfortable facilitating access and letting reporters file their stories, their news stories, as quickly as possible. It may vary from unit to unit, and that's a bit of a concern. We're going to have to see how it goes.

Apparently it has gone pretty well, judging by the lack of complaints from journalists about access or censorship, and the wall-to-wall coverage we have all seen on our televisions.
But during that interview Starr raised another concern, something of a fallback fear in case everything else went well:
BARBARA STARR: The Pentagon wants us, of course, to tell . . . you know, to offer the full truth to the American people. That goes without question. But the world is a different place after 9/11. There is a reality to the Arab world that is not reality to the United States of America. And, yes, there are people out there who engage in disinformation. If we can prove that, we need to report it. But we must not simply become spokesmen for the U.S. military.

TERENCE SMITH: "Cheerleaders."

BARBARA STARR: "Cheerleaders" as it were. We have a responsibility to try and articulate and communicate the view of the Arab world to our viewers and to our readers. We have to make sure it's accurate.

Syracuse University professor (of Television and Popular Culture) Robert Thompson diagnosed the "cheerleader" problem on a NewsHour follow-up story that aired March 22:
ROBERT THOMPSON: The danger to the embedding process is that when you are part of the troops that you're going in with, these are your fellow human beings. You are being potentially shot at together, and I think there is a sense that you become part of that group in a way that a journalist doesn't necessarily want to be.

Reflecting on this "danger," a CNN journalist aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier admitted on National Public Radio on March 22 that, although he was trying hard to remain objective, he couldn't help hoping that the young pilots he had gotten to know returned safely from their bombing missions.

The night before, PBS's Washington Week in Review aired a "special report" entitled "America At War," in which the following exchange occurred between host Gwen Ifill and the National Journal's Alexis Simendinger:
IFILL: One of the reasons why this war is so different for us to follow as reporters sitting around this table is [that there are] reporters who are embedded with the troops. That has made this-I don't know. I've been torn as a reporter about whether this has given us greater access to war than we would have otherwise seen or whether it's made us even more rah-rah than we would have otherwise been.

Ms. SIMENDINGER: Much more rah-rah, I think. The administration got five hundred partners in telling a story in a way that they never could have done with the resources of the U.S. government.

Phony 'Objectivity'

Ifill and Simendinger did not specify which of their colleagues they thought were being "rah-rah," but they certainly couldn't have had ABC's Ted Koppel in mind.

After filing a live report at the moment U.S. ground troops were moving into Iraq on the night of March 20, Koppel, who is embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, was asked by ABC Nightly News anchor Peter Jennings whether he had anything else to add to his report.

Apparently surprising even Jennings, Koppel responded thus:
Well, I just think, Peter, we ought to take note of the significance of what is happening here because this is an invasion that in this particular case, of course, was not prompted by any invasion of the United States. I know that members of the administration have been creating a tenuous linkage between al Qaeda and the Iraqis so that there is that linkage between 9-11 and what's happening here now, but this is a more pro-active, pre-emptive kind of operation, certainly a larger pre-emptive operation than I think the United States of America has ever engaged in and whichever way it goes I think it's going to shift the plates of the world.

Much of the American media may justifiably be accused of many things, but being "rah-rah" about this war is demonstrably not one of them. If anything, the majority of embedded reporters on the networks have leaned the other way, taking pains to be "balanced" in their coverage even when balance is not warranted.

Koppel even came close to defending Iraqi television's propagandistic broadcast of dead American soldiers on March 23, and this was after being informed on the air by ABC News's Charles Gibson that it was an explicit violation of the Geneva Convention.

Relativism, Not Balance

Koppel is merely the most vocal proponent of an attitude that is clearly shared by a great number of his hand-wringing colleagues. As he said during his extraordinary conversation with Gibson, he believes that American reporters run a constant risk of being one-sided (toward the Americans) in their coverage due to "patriotic fervor."

But the Koppel approach is exactly the wrong one, because it is a stance not of objectivity-as Koppel no doubt believes-but of relativism.

Journalistic objectivity does not mean not having an opinion about anything, which is impossible. Nor does it mean that one cannot sympathize with one or the other side of a debate or conflict. It simply means that the reporter reports what he sees and not what he wishes he saw or wants us to believe.

Of course, in doing this it is important for journalists not to ignore the perspective of the Arab world on this conflict, as Barbara Starr put it in her NewsHour interview, while, as she noted, recognizing Iraqi (or American) propaganda for what it is.

But achieving this has nothing to do with the physical or emotional proximity of journalists to those whom they cover. Quite the contrary: ensuring accurate and comprehensive reporting requires that journalists remain human, even if this means-as it inevitably will-feeling sympathy for one's fellow countrymen, or indeed for anyone else, during a war.

In fact, not feeling such sympathy ought to be the real concern among war correspondents, because a stance of moral relativism causes one to overlook injustices when they occur and to fail to assign appropriate blame for them. War crimes and atrocities become simply "incidents" and "tactics." Reporting on injustices and those who perpetrate them is precisely what separates the objective journalist from the propagandist. The far greater danger is to throw the distinction between right and wrong out the window and avoid feeling anything at all, or to try to "balance" one's reporting, as Koppel does, by inserting his personal, political, or emotional sympathies into his reports when they contradict those of American generals, policymakers, or the vast majority of the American people.

To counter someone else's biases with one's own is not objectivity, it's politics. And ignoring one's human sympathies not only doesn't solve the problem of bias, it's dangerous.

It is only natural, after all, for a human being to feel sympathy with other human beings who are in harm's way. There is no political content to that sympathy per se, as it is primordial in nature, so hoping that young American soldiers return safely from their missions-or hoping the same for Iraqi Republican Guard, for that matter, regardless of what one knows or feels about them otherwise-should have nothing to do with the way one reports on how those soldiers behave or the cause for which they are fighting.

Journalists must recognize that their sympathies and antipathies may at times coincide with the truth. In such cases-when the only alternative to accurate reporting is the willful adoption of an attitude of moral relativism-reporters have absolutely no reason to feel guilty about being "one-sided." That's not cheerleading, it's objectivity in action.

Eric Cox is managing editor of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute.

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