June 05, 2004


I hate the show Crossfire. I hate the back and forth arguing and the stressful chaos. When I did invest the time to watch the full two hours of Ethics in America: Under Orders, Under Fire, I was glued to the computer. Here the panelists did not address each other, but only answered the hypothetical situations the moderator posed in a calm and deliberate fashion. They showed each other the highest respect and merely tried to explore their own ethics without belittling the ethics of others. I highly recommend watching the whole thing.

Thus by the time I got to the segment that was highlighted in Why We Hate the Media, I felt more pity for Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace than contempt. Here they were, surrounded by men in uniform who were trying to make difficult decisions about taking lives to protect others, and their jobs as reporters seemed so trivial in comparison. Their ethical systems seemed more trivial as well.

There was more nuance in Mike Wallace's ethics than was suggested in Why We Hate the Media. One exchange that really struck me, which I've transcribed here, after Wallace said that he would not warn the Americans that the enemy was going to ambush them, and would instead roll tape and "remain detached", to use Den Beste's words:

Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft (R): What's it worth? It's worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon?
Mike Wallace: In other words what you're saying is that the reporter should say, "Hey, hold it, fellas. Americans, these guys are about to go after ya!" and you die? That's really what the question is here?
Moderator: And your answer is?
Mike Wallace: I don't know.

We ask our servicemembers to make these decisions everyday. No, I take that back; it's not even a decision. They do it no matter what. They, in putting on the uniform, have already made the decision that saving other Americans is indeed worth their own life. Standing up and yelling to save others is worth your own life. They don't think twice about it. Yet Mike Wallace, journalist and non-combatant, washes his hands of having to make that choice.

A few minutes later Major Stuart addresses this very paradox:

Major Robert C. Stuart, USMC: I think what we're asking the reporter on the scene to do is -- keeping in mind that that individual is not a combatant -- we expect our combatants to do in the normal course of their duties that which is heroic at all times. We are now all of a sudden charging the reporter with doing the heroic, when that is not...maybe for them it's super-heroic, to jump up and yell and scream and warn the Americans. I think that that's different however than that which we expect from ourselves while in uniform and in a combat situation.

Reporters are not expected to do the heroic, while our men and women in uniform do it every day. Why should we excuse "regular civilians" from doing things that will save the lives of others? Why is that a duty that only servicemembers must obey? Our Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and Sailors should not be the only Americans who have to face the grim reality that the good of our society is more important than their own life.

Newt Gingrich, surprisingly enough, made an enlightening speech about the role of technology in the changing face of warfare. (And this was in 1987!) At the end, he summarized the whole dilemma between the military and the media:

I don't think we're good right now at deciding "who are we?" Are we Americans first? Are the South Kosanese [the fake ally] then ours? Is it as bad to see our friends and allies get killed as it is to see our own children get killed? What does it all mean? And I think we're right at the cutting edge in this discussion, with the technology and the reality. And all I would say is that the military, I think, has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have.

I agree.

Posted by Sarah at June 5, 2004 05:27 PM

The thing is, I think it shouldbe quite acceptable for journalists to declare themselves as neutral and objective. Of course, there's a bit of a downside to that, because then nobody in the military is then obligated to do a damn thing for them. Not a single press release, not a single squad to come running if they get into trouble, and if a cameraman is too close when the Mk82 hits, well, too damn bad.

Cake, eating it, and all that.

Posted by: Jason at June 5, 2004 07:47 PM

I remember this same discussion year ago about the nature shows. The cameramen would film away as a lion took down an antelope because to do otherwise would destroy the balance of nature and interfere with the natural laws of the animal kingdom. But we're the same species, right? How can they be so detached? Maybe they really ARE half sewer rat.

Posted by: Oda Mae at June 6, 2004 01:09 AM

I recommend the entire series. Glad you took the time to watch. It has had a big impact on my view of warfare and, as a small part, the role our media play.

Posted by: Mike at June 6, 2004 01:37 AM

We actually watched quite a bit of these videos during my junior and senior years of AFROTC. In fact, although I may be wrong, I'm pretty sure they are a required part of the curriculum for training new Air Force officers.

The series is really excellent, and ignited some great arguments in my class of 15-20 cadets.

Ah, the US military - seemingly one of the last bastions of ethics training.

Posted by: Sparky at June 7, 2004 05:43 AM


So let's say some guy has got his foot trapped in a train's automatic doors and is about to be dragged off and probably killed as the train leaves the station.

Should the reporter alert the driver and save his life, or just write the story?

Posted by: Pixy Misa at June 12, 2004 11:38 AM

How about the "When Animals Attack!" documentaries? Why didn't the cameraman warn the person he/she was about to be attacked by a wild animal and eaten alive?

Posted by: Madfish Willie at June 17, 2004 07:53 PM

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