12. PBS journalism panel presses Mike Wallace, Peter Jennings to agree they would need to sell out American troops to maintain journalistic integrity (1989).
On the PBS series Ethics in America on March 7, 1989, Harvard professor Charles Ogletree led the nation’s leading journalists into a chilling discovery. In a future war involving U.S. soldiers, what would a TV reporter do if he learned the enemy troops with which he was traveling were about to launch a surprise attack on an American unit? ABC anchor Peter Jennings and CBS correspondent Mike Wallace agreed: getting ambush footage came first.
Ogletree set up a theoretical war between “North Kosan” and U.S.-supported “South Kosan.” At first Jennings responded: “If I was with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” Wallace countered that other reporters, including himself, “would regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover.” Jennings’ position bewildered Wallace: “I’m a little bit of a loss to understand why, because you are an American, you would not have covered that story.”
“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?” Ogletree asked. Without hesitating Wallace responded: “No, you don’t have higher duty...You’re a reporter.” This persuaded Jennings, who changed his view: “I think he’s right, too. I chickened out.”
Military advisers and generals on the panel suggested “you’re Americans first, and you’re journalists second.” Wallace remained mystified by the concept, wondering “what in the world is wrong with photographing this attack by North Kosaneseon American soldiers?”
Later, Ogletree noted the “venomous reaction” from George Connell, a Marine Corps colonel, who angrily declared: “I feel utter contempt. Two days later they’re both walking off my hilltop, they’re 200 yards away and they get ambushed. And they’re lying there wounded. And they’re going to expect I’m going to send Marines up there to get them. They’re just journalists, they’re not Americans....And Marines will die, going to get a couple of journalists.”
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