Whose Side Are Journalists On?

commentary by John McManus


In wartime is the journalist’s first responsibility to flag and country, or to a profession seeking truth regardless of consequences?


It’s a popular, but false question.


Journalists have always served their country best when they’ve provided as accurate, unflinching reporting as they can. 


Such reporting may not, of course, serve the war effort nor please generals or the White House. Americans became disaffected with the Viet Nam War only after reporters broke away from Army briefings—the “5 O’clock follies”—and went into the jungle. Their first-hand reports of combat showed the nation just how isolated our GIs were in a hostile land.


Had journalists been more “patriotic,” or their access to war as Pentagon-controlled as it has been ever since, the outcome of that struggle would not likely have differed. But the death toll, on both sides, would have risen.


Reporting as truthfully as we humans can is never tougher than in a war.


Reporters’ objectivity is compromised by being embedded, literally in bed, with sources on one side of the event. Sources on the other side may be shooting at them.  Reporters must simply trust the military for information beyond their vantage point. That information is likely to be both self-serving and irresistible with its bomb’s-eye video. Finally, the brass can still read dispatches before they reach you and me.


But the greatest threat to truth-telling is as likely to come from corporate as military headquarters. The corporations that own the news may not wish to risk alienating some customers if their reporting appears unpatriotic--embarrassing the military or exposing civilian slaughter to a critical world. Messengers of bad news aren’t shot anymore, just zapped on the remote.


Honest journalism is the best way to serve America, but it’s risky business.