In a time of war, we must all do our part. For the journalists, that means simply: do your job. You are not a soldier, nor are you a political policy-maker. You are the professional skeptic, the one who must ask the questions no one else is asking, and who reports the news even if it is painful.
There is a lot of talk around America these days that the normal journalist’s role of reporting flaws and disagreements in U.S. government policies should end, now that the war against Iraq is underway. Some believe that raising questions about the basis and roll-out of this U.S. attack on Iraq is unpatriotic and endangers the lives of our military. But I believe that history teaches us just the opposite lesson: questioning the basis and the methods of waging war is essential if democracy is to work. Only through scrutiny can government be held accountable. Our nation especially should understand this lesson, after the painful experience of our war in Vietnam.
Many Americans join others around the world in raising questions about this war. Some are concerned that it may actually do more harm than good, by inciting more anti-American terrorism and instability in the world. These critics are sobered by the fact that this war is exactly what Bin Laden was hoping for. He wanted to ignite a global conflict that looked as if America was an imperialist evil empire, waging a crusade against the Muslim world. Using all the might of the world’s only superpower, without the support of the United Nations and our historic allies, we seem to have taken Bin Laden’s bait. Yet those who point out these problems are declared persona non grata by many fellow Americans.
What is the role of the journalist in such a time of national crisis? Because the critics within our political system are being intimidated and vilified by those who think any dissent is inappropriate, it is more important than ever for someone to ask the tough questions. To report what is actually happening. To hold officials accountable. That is always the role of the journalist.
To be sure, there are special rules that apply when one’s own nation is on the battlefield. One rule is that journalists don’t endanger a military operation that is underway. They don’t report in real time (unless given the green light by the military) on troops in motion, or reveal battle plans in advance. They balance the public’s need to know with the military’s need to hold some things secret, at least for a time.
I agree with the Committee of Concerned Journalists’ advice about the journalist’s role in this time of war:
“Act as a professional observer, providing citizens with the information they need to understand and evaluate the situation and their own safety for themselves. That often means providing people with information they may find difficult to hear. This implies that just as a doctor or lawyer helps make our society work by taking on unpopular but vital roles, providing this information is how a journalist expresses his or her patriotism, his or her commitment to the U.S.”
This means that American journalists are properly doing their jobs by helping Americans understand foreign responses to the U.S. position. They must help us understand who we are fighting against, even if this means spending time with the enemy. They must report on errors by U.S. commanders in the battlefield, which could possibly save lives next time. Airing criticism of how the war is administered is not unpatriotic, and is not an expression of disloyalty to the U.S. military. Quite the contrary, it is protecting them from giving their lives in vain, in conflicts that are ill-conceived or poorly executed.
On Oct. 17, 2001, when Ted Koppel presented a program on ABC Television’s “Nightline” about bio-terrorism and anthrax attacks at the Capitol, he anticipated concern from his audience about whether he should be discussing these matters. “Let me ask you to briefly consider a world in which we essentially shut down our information-gathering process,” he said at the outset of the show. “In most countries of the world the…government decides what is in the national interest and the media disseminate the information…You may find yourselves wondering tonight…whether that might not be a safer, more reassuring environment. But be careful of what you wish for. Americans are accustomed to knowing what is going on in their world and bad news is a necessary part of that. It is how we analyze our problems, how we find solutions, but above all, it is also how our public officials often are held accountable.”