Once again, it's the age-old question of journalism vs. citizenship.
More than two decades have passed since the Scali-Rusk affair. This was the time during the Vietnam War when Dean Rusk, then secretary of State, in response to a question that he considered unhelpful from ABC's diplomatic correspondent John Scali asked back: "Whose side are you on?" The exchange, which occurred at Rusk's regular Friday "background" session, caused a great stir and eventually, despite the "background" rule, the quote ended up being reported and attributed to Rusk. Indignant reporters in the room felt that Scali's (and their own) loyalty to the country was now to be questioned if they asked tough, critical questions about the war. They used the term "McCarthyism."
Over the years since then I have more than once pondered the meaning of this moment, which I witnessed and which is famous among journalists, and wondered if it didn't represent only half of the oddity of our professional position. For it sometimes seems to me that in these foreign crises we are complaining either that (1) the government is calling us disloyal or (2) it wants our loyalty as advocates of what it is doing, which, by the nature of our jobs, we cannot give. In other words: please don't call us disloyal and please don't expect loyalty to inform what we write, say or do on the job.
It sounds certifiably loony. The trouble is that it pretty much describes our situation. American reporters cannot, or at least should not, write their reports as agents of American policy, as propagandists or government spokesmen. Still, they are Americans. Where and how does their loyalty run? Are there limits on their professional obligations to detached reporting? Are there limits on their obligations as American citizens?
The whole thing has come up again in the confrontation with Saddam Hussein. Ted Koppel and Barbara Walters have been chided for use of the national "we" in the course of some heated questioning of the Iraqi ambassador the other night on television. We (the press) are not supposed to say "we" meaning the country when describing what the American government is doing. Although this may seem strained -- Koppel and Walters are Americans, after all -- the protocol is that you are supposed to use some third-person formulation.
It is of course true that there are some circumstances in which even the most resolute purists will cooperate with the government in pursuit of its aims, chiefly in life-and-death affairs involving hostages, kidnappings and the like -- chiefly by keeping silent. But there was a time not so long ago when there were journalists around who did much more and didn't take such a meticulous view of the division between their work and government policy. In fact, part of what strikes some now as an obsession with detachment in the press no doubt proceeds from an inclination to correct a lot of past sloppiness in the other direction. Journalists not all that long ago too readily mixed themselves up with government agencies, sometimes as actual errand boys and retainers, sometimes just as spokesmen for the government. I think we are infinitely better off out of that business and that the bosses, wardens and gatekeepers of our profession should be ferocious about keeping it that way. But we can only look like fools if we set about trying to establish our credentials in this regard in one of two unfortunate, if fairly common, ways.
The first is to confuse the critical function, which is essential, with the unremittingly adversarial function which may be for political oppositions to indulge, but not for reporters and analysts. By adopting the view that the government is always wrong (no one professes to do this, but many do) the journalist loses both his value and his credibility. He also often misses the main story, being so busy chasing the evidence, sometimes minor and marginal, of that part of the program that went wrong. Partly because we are lied to so much, journalists these days have an awful time accepting good news at face value. But we have to rise above our squinty cynicism to recognize success or right-minded activity when it comes along. This is not in order to be loved, but in order to be honest and informative.
The second overreaction to the compromises of the past is this insistence that unlike all other people, we are, well, not people, but vessels of some sort: disembodied, emotionless, innocent of any ideas or, heaven forbid, biases, people without a country or a persona or a background or family or any other complicating human entanglement. American journalists have relatives in the armed forces; they pay taxes; they hope for the best for their children and fear for their lives when the bombs begin to go off. The ones I know even -- dare I say it? -- tend to wish their own country and government and countrymen well. Is this some crime or, less dramatically, some professional disqualification?
Surely not. The problem is that we are rightly obliged not to let those sentiments keep us from asking the lousy questions, from being a pain in the neck to governments that are trying (it is in their nature and often their short-term interest) to orchestrate reality and fiddle with the truth. You notice I say governments -- plural. One of the unhappy side effects of the United States-must-be-wrong syndrome that exists among a few of our colleagues is letting other governments that do truly awful things off the hook. Whether Koppel and Walters should or shouldn't have used the American "we" in their rough interrogation of Saddam's man in Washington, surely their toughness was journalistically legitimate and not some lapse into inappropriate boosterism.
Some questions don't have good answers. American journalists who fashion themselves blank slates get written on by some pretty unsavory characters, that is, used. You have to call on some judgment and knowledge and instinct that can only be a product of where you come from and who you are. You don't have to renounce your citizenship at the door. You just have to be willing to risk some disfavor and misunderstanding if that is the price of covering the subject fairly. All characterizations of this function by journalists sound pompous -- so I'll demur. But it isn't being "on the other side."
Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.