” . . . Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. . . . Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.” This is part of the “Code of Ethics” of the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization dedicated to protecting and improving journalism.
During a “town-hall” style meeting with the troops in Kuwait, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked the 2,300 or so soldiers to ask him “tough questions.” Army Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, a Tennessee National Guard outfit, asked, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?”
Rumsfeld, seeming a bit rattled by the question, said, “I talked to the general coming out here about the pace at which the vehicles are being armored. They have been brought from all over the world, wherever they’re not needed, to a place here where they are needed. I’m told that they are being — the Army is — I think it’s something like 400 a month are being done. And it’s essentially a matter of physics. It isn’t a matter of money. It isn’t a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it. As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. Since the Iraq conflict began, the Army has been pressing ahead to produce the armor necessary at a rate that they believe — it’s a greatly expanded rate from what existed previously — but a rate that they believe is the rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment . . . ”
Certainly whether our soldiers are supplied with the best equipment is a serious matter. But what happened during the question-and-answer in Kuwait raises another issue — the role of the media. It turns out that a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter, Edward Lee Pitts, learned the day before that Rumsfeld insisted that only soldiers ask questions. So, according to his own e-mail, the reporter said, ” . . . I brought two of [the soldiers I’m embedded with] along with me as my escorts. Beforehand we worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have. While waiting for the VIP, I went and found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd. So during the Q&A session, one of my guys was the second person called on.”
But when Pitts wrote his story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he made no mention of his role in helping to shape questions posed to Rumsfeld. In the e-mail, Pitts said he became concerned about armorless vehicles after learning he would be on an unarmored truck.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press editor initially insisted that the reporter did nothing wrong. But after Internet bloggers, talkshow hosts and other pundits raised the temperature on the issue, the editor admitted that Pitts’ role should have been explained in his story.
Washington Post media critic and CNN “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz said, “I think Edward Lee Pitts . . . should have disclosed in the story that he played a role. I faced a situation in Bob Dole’s ’96 campaign. I was in a New York deli where the candidate was about to come in. I was sitting with a woman who said she was concerned about Dole’s position on abortion. And I kind of blurted out, ‘Well, here he comes now. Why don’t you ask him?’ And she did. I didn’t suggest the question. But I was nervous enough about that, that I mentioned in my story that I had inadvertently played a role. I think that’s what Pitts should have done. . . . I just simply think that if a reporter is going to play the middleman role and whisper in the soldier’s ear, that a) I don’t think that’s something I would have done, b) I certainly would have disclosed it.” Kurtz’ CNN colleague, Kyra Phillips, replied, “Yes, manufacturing, and staging and orchestrating, I mean we learned in Journalism 101 you just don’t go there.”
Morale — both in the field and stateside — plays a significant role in any wartime effort. Given that, the media’s role cannot be overstated. We expect reporters to report the news, not make it.