Reporters Without Borders?

The war on the terrorists in Afghanistan has begun, and so have the first examples of a journalistic neutrality fetish. But those occasional outbursts are easy to find. Less obvious, almost to the point of obscurity, are the examples of the media going out of their way to do things right.

Seventeen news organizations knew of Sunday's first Afghanistan air attacks on Friday, when their staffers were called to join the military media pool, but none divulged the secret. When pressed, bureau chiefs naturally said they'd like greater access to the troops, but still the silence held. With lives on the line, everyone clammed up.

If that is good, then the gold medal for putting country above competition has to go to the Knight-Ridder news organization. More than a week before USA Today ran a front-page story about how the U.S. had Green Beret and Navy SEAL commandos inside Afghanistan, Knight-Ridder had the story, but out of concern for endangering the servicemen and the operation, Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau Chief Clark Hoyt withheld the story at the Pentagon's request. "Based on what we knew," he says, "we believed that making it public could have substantially increased the risk to the Americans involved and could even have been seen as contributing to a loss of life."

The Pentagon owes Mr. Hoyt a big, fat leak when it's appropriate.

This is a much more laudable approach than the infamous PBS "Ethics in America" debate in 1989. Back then reporters were presented with the scenario wherein they were traveling with the "North Kosanese" enemy's armed forces when it comes upon American soldiers. The question: Do you set aside journalistic priorities in order to warn the Americans? Heck no, said CBS's Mike Wallace: "No, you don't have a higher duty... you're a reporter." After initially saying he would "do what I could to warn the Americans," ABC's Peter Jennings buckled and threw his support to Wallace: "I think he's right, too. I chickened out."

The arrogance of it all was too much for another panelist, Marine Corps Colonel George Connell, who ripped into these reporters: "I feel utter contempt. Two days later they're both walking off my hilltop ... and they get ambushed," he suggested. "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. But I'll do it and that's what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die, going to get a couple of journalists."

This sorry incident came to mind when Jennings began to inch toward that neutral-as-Switzerland standard last week. "One other item about these [U.S.] food and medicine drops," he intoned on his evening broadcast. "They're not popular with everyone. The international relief group, Doctors Without Borders, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for relief work, described it today as military propaganda to justify the bombing." How nice of Jennings to bolster the group's credentials by mentioning the Nobel Peace Prize, a prime example of another committee of soft-headed internationalists who make no distinctions between freedom and slavery, civility and savagery. Only peace, even peace without freedom or peace without honor, is king.

A night later, ABC sent reporter Dan Harris to follow up on the internationalist argument. "Some humanitarian aid workers were saying this effort is little more than propaganda," Harris repeated. "Some say the U.S. is actually doing more harm than good ... The attacks have significantly hampered a large humanitarian effort, and the U.S. food drops simply can't compensate for that."

How rich. In the annals of history is there another example of a nation which is attacked, with over 5,000 of its citizens slaughtered, and then turns around within weeks to provide a massive humanitarian aid package to its enemy's citizens? Yet somehow the press is finding a way to condemn us for doing it.

NBC "Today" co-host Matt Lauer was at it, too. He questioned the Air Force general in charge of the air drops, D. L. Johnson: "But you can't deny the fact that when you drop these into impoverished areas you're, in effect, sending U.S. propaganda into those areas, you're saying, 'Taliban bad. Here's a gift from the U.S.'"

Before Matt gets too smug with these "you can't deny the fact" phrases, he should ponder this: If he were left in a desert without food for about two weeks, would he spit on the guy who comes with food and accuse him of being a propagandist? Isn't it possible, just possible, that the starving will appreciate America's clear message that this isn't a war on every Afghan, but a war on the terrorist menace within?

These TV anchors could use another visit to Ground Zero to contemplate whether the killers deserve journalistic neutrality.