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Monday, August 9, 2010

The Reporter and Ethics

I am a member of an organization of former Vietnam war correspondents called "Vietnam Old Hacks." This is a large group of many of the best reporters who ever covered war. Many went on to cover other wars--perhaps too many, for some paid the ultimate price doing the work they loved.

Recently on the Vietnam Old Hacks listserv, the following excerpt from a story by reporter David Wood was published. Here are the first few paragraphs:

"I'm going back to Afghanistan to report on the war. But after the (Gen. Stanley) McChrystal fiasco, what the heck are the rules?

This will be my fifth time in Afghanistan since 2001. I'll be hanging out with several battalions of the 10th Mountain Division, whom I've traveled with and reported on for going on two decades in places like Somalia, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

So this will be familiar ground. Except for the new cloud of uncertainty that came between soldiers and journalists after Gen. McChrystal and his top aides jocularly derided the Obama administration and others, in front of a reporter. Result: Rolling Stone Magazine won a place in history for its sensational story on "The Runaway General,'' and the general was forced into ignominious retirement after a brilliant career for what he may have assumed was off-the-record barstool banter."

It appears the reporter who wrote the Rolling Stone piece committed an unforgiveable breach of journalistic ethics in reporting what McChrystal and his aides said. Of course, I don't know the ground rules that were established between the general and the reporter. However, it is doubtful the general said what he did on the record.

During my time as a correspondent in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador, Afghanistan, etc. I often had off the cuff conversations with high ranking officials who were also valuable sources. One thing I learned early on in my journalistic career was NOT to burn a source. Once you do that, you have lost that person as a source forever.

I can't count the number of times someone in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon or San Salvador or Islamabad told me something that could have gotten them fired because they were venting about someone or some policy. Some of these comments were pretty damning. Did I rush off to my hotel room to pound out a story? (In the days before computers we hacks used portable typewriters.

No I didn't. Because I knew intuitively that this person was trusting me NOT to write a piece based on our private conversation. How many times did I meet CIA contacts in bars on Saigon's Tu Do street and how many times did they divulge juicy tidbits about what was happening the Embassy? I knew what I could and could not hang on these sources. In any case, most of these were background briefings unless we established "rules of banter." During our conversations these sources knew they could trust me not to burn them.

Some reporters, however, are trigger happy. They are always looking for that one story that will win them a slew of awards and thereby make their career. I always avoided reporters like that. These are the same men and women who will NOT have your back when things get dicey on the battlefield. They are dishonest, unscrupulously ambitious and dangerous.

But most important, they are in the news business for all the wrong reasons. The job of a reporter is to report accurately and fairly so the reading or viewing public can make informed decisions about their lives, the people they elect and those who are in power. They are "watchdogs" of government.

Some core principles of journalism are enduring, said the Committee of Concerned Journalists recently:

"As audiences fragment and our companies diversify, there is a growing debate within news organizations about our responsibilities as businesses and our responsibilities as journalists. Many journalists feel a sense of lost purpose. There is even doubt about the meaning of news, doubt evident when serious journalistic organizations drift toward opinion, infotainment and sensation out of balance with news.

“Yet as we change we assert some core principles of journalism are enduring. They are those that make journalism a public service central to self-government. They define our profession not as the act of communicating but as a set of responsibilities.

Journalism can entertain, amuse and lift our spirits, but news organizations also must cover the matters vital to the well being of our increasingly diverse communities and foster the debate upon which democracy depends. The First Amendment implies obligation as well as freedom."

There is a difference between being a responsible "watchdog" and an imprudent "newshound."