Politics & Policy

Reporters as Citizens

The things journalists learn on assignment.

Guess what Mary Beth Sheridan, a reporter from the Washington Post, learned when she was embedded with our troops in Iraq?

That they are not, in fact, “blood-thirsty maniacs.”

I found that out the other morning at a Columbia Journalism School First Amendment breakfast. The topic under discussion was “reporters as citizens,” and Sheridan was on the panel.

These First Amendment breakfasts are held about once a month, and when there is a superstar journalist, or the topic is full of buzz, they are fairly crowded affairs. But on this Tuesday morning, there were plenty of extra croissants to go round.

The moderator, as usual, was lawyer and Columbia journalism professor Floyd Abrams, and he started the proceedings with a couple of personal anecdotes. First of all, he recalled his most famous First Amendment triumph, the “Pentagon Papers” case. He described Chief Justice Warren Berger’s dissenting opinion, which he quoted in part, as a “whine.” Then he went on to tell a long anecdote about a Fred Friendly panel, sometime in the past, that included Peter Jennings, Mike Wallace, and a wounded Vietnam veteran.

Abrams recalled that Friendly, as he often did, presented the panel with a hypothetical scenario that there was a civil war between the northern and southern sections of an unnamed country, with America helping the southern forces. An American journalist, to his surprise, was invited to go on patrol with the northern forces. While on the mission, the journalist realized the northern forces intended to attack a group of Americans. What should the journalist do?

Peter Jennings, Abrams recalled, said he hoped he would have the courage to call out and warn the American troops. But Mike Wallace interrupted to admonish Jennings, asking, “Peter, why are you there?,” implying that as a journalist he should not get involved. Abrams said Jennings then began to backtrack on his answer. The only comment of the wounded veteran who was on the panel was: “I always knew you guys were like that.”

A fairly provocative way to begin, and the topic of “reporters as citizens” is full of potential for debate. But, sad to say, the discussion went downhill from there. One of the panel members was Addie Rimmer, associate professor of the j-school, who talked about how her grad students cover the Bronx for their student newspaper, the Bronx Beat. I really don’t know why she was part of the discussion at all.

Another panel member, Tom Robbins, a reporter from the Village Voice, talked engagingly about how he had protected his “confidential sources” while writing an expose for the Daily News about the mob’s influence at New York’s Javits Center. But, as it turned out, the “confidential sources” who had fingered the mob–and then lost their jobs in the subsequent clean-up–wanted him to reveal the names of other “confidential sources” who, they believed, had unfairly had them fired. They even sued to try to make him comply. Their case was thrown out, but while the freedom of the press to protect such sources was reaffirmed, the whistle-blowers lost more than they gained by telling all to a crusading journalist–an ironic little twist.

The panel member who, one would have thought, would have the most to say about the subject of a “reporter as citizen” was Mary Beth Sheridan. But, she explained, she hadn’t realized she would have to make a speech at the breakfast, and that her remarks about her experiences in Iraq would be just “free-flowing”–and, indeed, they were.

First of all, she said she was “overwhelmed by the military,” but she did learn by being embedded that members of our armed forces were not “blood-thirsty maniacs.” Yes, she really did say that.

In fact, she said, they were “really decent people.” And even “sweet.” Of course, after being shot at they were eager to shoot back–a military attitude that seemed to surprise her.

She also reported that when she asked soldiers why were they in Iraq, every single one told her, “to help the Iraqi people.” Again she was surprised that the military could create such a unity of purpose even though, she said, she didn’t see any “brainwashing” going on. She also noted that many soldiers had no opinion about the war. They had gone where they were ordered to go, like all good soldiers. Such an attitude seemed to dazzle her as well.

She didn’t have anything much to say about “reporters as citizens,” but clearly she appeared to be one citizen who had very little familiarity with, or understanding of, or even quite possibly respect for the military before her tour of duty. In a way, it is kind of sad that only after some first-hand experience did she learn what most American citizens believe: that American soldiers are “decent people.” And that it is those soldiers, not our journalists, after all, who protect our freedom of the press.

Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.

Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...

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