Journalists discuss ethics of war, political reporting

Posted 10:54pm October 15

by Vanessa Maltin
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

Distinguished journalists, Bob Schieffer, Daniel Schorr, Karen Jurgensen, Margaret Warner and David Broder joined moderator Marvin Kalb in a discussion Monday night at the Kalb Report on the ethics of journalism in war and politics.

With over 250 years of combined knowledge amongst them, the six reporters engaged in debate on the ethical issues surrounding their personal experiences as journalists, the Robert Novak leak, the CNN cover-up in Iraq and David Blair’s fabrication of information in the New York Times.

While each journalist held a different personal definition of ethics in his or her profession, Kalb identified the common theme of the evening. “When lives are on the line a journalist must think long and hard before they tell a story,” Kalb said.

Each panelist spoke briefly about a time in their life when ethics forced them to not report a story. Schieffer spoke of his work through the heart of the Vietnam War as troops were mobilized and B-52 bombers were ordered to destroy buildings in North Vietnam. Schieffer was at the Pentagon reading the commands first hand. But he didn’t publish them.

“They were helping me to understand the story…their side of it that is,” Schieffer said. “It was just understood that journalists wouldn’t report this information.”

When asked if Novak crossed a line by disclosing the name of a CIA agent, the panel established that publishing the name did nothing for Novak’s story. But individuals felt differently on the ethics of the printing of her name.

“If the leak is in the interest of the leakers then don’t publish it. The only time to report a leak is when the information is in the public’s best interest to know,” said Warner.

Broder responded plain and simply that journalism is a business. “It is the government’s responsibility to keep governmental information a secret. It is the press’s job to publish important information for the public.”

CNN holding back information in Iraq to protect their sources and reporters sparked a sense of camaraderie among the panel. Not one of the journalists would have traded places with the editors having to make the decision of whether or not to disclose the trends of murder and torture in Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“It was a choice of whether to print the truth once and get out of Iraq or don’t say anything and stay in Baghdad,” Warner said.

“You have to make compromises when behind enemy lines,” Schieffer said, “I wouldn’t want to cover it.”

To avoid another Jayson Blair scandal in the future Schieffer suggested that the media must build standards and teach people to live up to them.

“We have to nurture young reporters but sometimes you have to knock them in the head,” Schieffer said with a chuckle.

“The problem with Blair was that the New York Times took a young kid and treated him as though he was seasoned as a journalist elsewhere,” said Warner.

Before closing for the evening, Kalb asked the panel to speak to the audience, packed with student journalists, on how to teach students to make ethical decisions.

Warner said that the truth must be pounded home from the beginning and that students must learn to always treat subjects and viewers with respect.

“They have to learn to present the story honestly,” Warner said.

For his final thought of the night, Kalb said, “Journalistic ethics, if there is such a thing, adds to up a journalist trying to be true and fair…the rest is just commentary.”

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