As the story of the recently released American hostages in Iran drifts into books, it produces a unique opportunity for the American press.
It is a chance for the press to sit down and examine its influence and the consequences during the Iranian crisis.
A precise measure of the press's influence may not be possible, but it can be argued that the people who held the Americans might have been open to a different solution had it not been for the glare of U.S. television lights and simultaneous attention by the writing press. This is not to blame the press for what happened, because it is equally prsuasive to argue that the hostages were caught up in a chaotic political convulsion and their captors may have been restrained by their own appetite for publicity.
Still, international terrorism in a world wired for sound, pictures and instant communication presents a different set of responsbililities for news coverages, and the prospects for that kind of behavior grow greater, not less. Acts of terror committed with the knowledge that they will receive worldwide attention draw the press into symbiotic, if despised, alliance with terrorists.
This enormously perlexing problem troubles thoughtful reporters, editors and producers. There is no rationale that would have kept U.S. reporters from covering the Iranian story. The dilemma is how much and what kind of coverage to deliver.
There is no model for a voluntary industwide press assessment and, if it takes place, there should not be any illusion about a national contingency plan. There can be no such thing. The fundamental fact of the country's press is its diversity.
A useful example of how a study can have good results without impeding the flow of information showed up in the past week when a commission on presidental press conferences made recommendations to the new administration. The recommendations were accepted, and more orderly and intelligible press conferences will take place. That problem, however, was much more manageable than coverage of an international act that strikes at the national jugular, and the recommendations were made not to press but to the government, which has the authority to set rule.
A national press assessment can be effective only if the most reflective, experienced and respected leaders of the press itself examine the case history of the American hostages. Only they, with thoughtful conclusions, can command the kind of attention that would be felt in the industry. No governmental commission, however blue its ribbons, can do the job, and no acdemic group can take the initiative. It has to originate within the press, because if must take into account the competitive demands of the industry, the grubbiness of getting a tough story told, the difficulty of developing a comprehensive and fair account, and the extreme delicacy of an incident that must be reported but that may endanger lives or summon the Marines.
Other opinions may be sought as wanted or needed, but that should be done carefully. Among other reasons, the assessment should include some evaluation of the press relations of the U.S. government, whose entreaties and cautions to the U.S. press were an element in the coverage of the Iran story.
The difficulty of an informative assessment is multiplied by the need for print media and electronic media to be represented and equally involved.Despite the wholesale differences between the two, they were reporting the same crisis and delivering an overlapping message to the American public.
The government is critical because the opportunity has arrived.
The issue is some new attempt at defining the thin and fragile line between responsibility and limits in reporting events in a dangerous world.