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Jason Holliston
Thursday, April 10, 2003  
Journalism's Role During Wartime

I received an interesting email from a reader today about my post, "Dumb Journalism", below. He took issue with my problems I had with the writer of the Reuters article that annoyed me. I then spent some time talking to a friend, and he took the position that journalists -- perhaps especially during wartime -- do not have a responsibility to be objective or unbiased. He presented the question: should a reporter give the same authority to, say, Hitler's regime and it's propaganda versus the Allies propaganda during WWII? Should the loathing of the Nazi's goals show through? It got me thinking.

Really, this comes down to an ideology of what journalism's role is, and I think that's fluid through the ages. It serves a different purpose in different times, and there are different aspects involved in every story. There's the historical facet, the entertainment facet, and the political facet. To a great extent, history is written by using the accounts of the eye witnesses, and with modern journalism, the witnesses' story is written by the reporter. Donald Rumsfeld told the Iraqi people to find the embedded reporters and tell them their stories about the regime, and the horrors they or people they know had to endure during the past 30 years. Entertainment? It's not simply driven by money and ratings, as the people at Indymedia would surely say. Storytellers throughout human history used the entertainment value of a story to please the crowd and to ensure that the account was passed along through the generations. Entertainment produces interest, and interest produces learning. Ask any history professor, and they'll tell you the same thing. And finally, the political -- the heart of this particular arguement.

The role of politics, I think, has to be defined through the eyes of both the journalist's convictions and the reader's convictions. They work together, and the relevancy of the story is directly affected by this relationship. Simply slanting the story -- coloring it, if you will -- does not necessarily mean the story is garbage, but there are boundaries that should not be crossed. Truth is what you're after, and this should be sacrosanct in any journalism. Truth is what separates journalism from what we heard from the Minister of Disinformation in Baghdad this past few weeks.

In wartime America, where our sons and daughters are putting their life on the line on an hourly basis overseas, biased journalism is not only welcomed -- it's expected by the majority of Americans. Watch Fox News some time and you'll see what Americans want. We don't want the dry relation of the facts, but a factual story through the lens of patriotism. These are not exclusive things, but can work together rather effectively. At the same time, sometimes they can, in fact, work against each other, and this is where the job gets difficult. If Fox News sees a Marine commit an atrocity, will they report it? I believe they will, because this would be that line that must not be crossed. During wartime (or in dealing with anything that is obviously evil or against the greater good), objectivity goes out the window. Emotions can, and should affect reporting. If the reporter can help the cause -- without telling falsehoods -- they are obliged to. Never forget, also, that leaving out relevant facts that affect the story is a lie, just as much as saying the Earth is flat.

So, let me look at my post below. I stand by what I said in the first case -- the reporter left out the fact that most of the people in Baghdad fighting us are out of uniform, and the doctor had no way of knowing if the injured were shopkeepers or paramilitary taking pot shots at our troops. He should have put this in as a qualifier of the doctors' statements, but he didn't. This is bad journalism, through and through. He's putting forth a political point of view through falsehoods, and I really don't see how this could be argued, unless he just made a mistake and forgot. Doubtful. The second, though, I'll take my judgment back. It's not bad journalism, but it is propaganda (which, again, unlike what the folks at Indymedia would like to think, does not necessarily mean lies) that puts forth an anti-American point of view. It's in the same vein of many of the New York Time's stories in the past several weeks. Subtle word play that's put in a story specifically to nudge the reader's emotions in a specific (read: antiwar) direction. Regardless, this isn't bad journalism. I still reserve the right -- as someone that's a prouder American that I probably ever have been -- to be disgusted by it.

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