Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Difficult Decisions: Ethical Issues for the American Media in Times of National Emergency

By Rob Elder

17 October 2001

The president's national security advisor recently asked television networks to refrain from broadcasting, verbatim, entire tapes containing lengthy statements by Osama bin Laden. The presidential press secretary, responding to contrarian comments by a television comedian, has said that all Americans should "watch what they say.''

Writing separately in this series of commentaries, Miriam Schulman has examined what the latter implies for individual freedom of speech. My intention here is to examine ethical issues the Bush administration is raising for reporters, editors and publishers—about how they cover the statements of bin Laden and other terrorists, how they deal with loyal Americans who criticize the government's response to the events of September 11, and how much the media themselves question the administration's actions.

The question is not whether the media have a legal right to report whatever they find newsworthy. The First Amendment guarantees that they do. The issue is how media managers should employ that freedom in their own decisions about what is ethical and professionally responsible.

When National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked, rather than demanded, that bin Laden's statements be more carefully and tightly edited by American networks, she made both the appropriate and the politically savvy choice. A demand would have sparked a backlash by journalists. A request, however, implicitly recognized that the media would make their own choices, while calling on them to use more restraint.

Some already have responded in dramatic ways. Air time allocated for bin Laden's taped comments has greatly diminished. At this writing, CNN has accepted an apparently genuine invitation to submit questions to bin Laden; what the network will do with his answers remains to be seen.

At the same time, American writers who have criticized George W. Bush have found themselves under fire from their employers and their readers. One newspaper in Oregon and another in Texas have fired staffers who wrote unflattering reviews of the President's performance since September 11. Washington columnist Mary McGrory, another of the few critical journalists, reports more angry mail than she has ever received about anything written in her long career.

Writing in the New York Times, columnist Frank Rich has noted that this administration, like any other facing a crisis, has sought strenuously to sell its own version of events while vigorously contesting any criticism. For example, Rich pointed out that Dr. Rice's stated reason for more editing of bin Laden—that he might be sending coded messages to trigger new terrorist incidents—is hardly bulletproof, in logical terms, given the terrorist leader's access to other media exposure worldwide. Residents of New York City, for example, have a choice of six Arabic television channels via satellite, all immune from American editing.

Rich cited other examples: "Recent days,'' he wrote in his October 13 column, "have also brought an unorthodox cancellation of a daily Pentagon press briefing, a move to replace honest journalism with propaganda at the Voice of America, a short-lived effort to cut congressmen out of the military and intelligence loop, and the revelation that Karl Rove, the president's political guru, went so far as to call a historian he'd never met, Robert Dallek, to lean on him after Mr. Dallek criticized the president in USA Today for delaying his return to Washington on September 11. Mr. Rove tried to sell Mr. Dallek the false story, later retailed by too many gullible journalists, that Mr. Bush had been scarce because Air Force One had been under threat.''

Still, the public is in no mood to quibble with the Bush administration over such details. As Rich observed, "The country is as united as ever it could be, and willing to follow the president wherever he leads.'' In time, the War Against Terrorism like the War Against Drugs will be perceived as fair game for reasonable criticism. But not yet.

All of this sets the stage for uncomfortable decisions the media must make now, in a climate of unabashed patriotism. Journalistic ethics always are most severely tested in times like these, when disagreement is seen as disloyal and destructive of the nation's ability to gird itself for survival.

To be sure, editors and publishers and the conglomerates that own newspapers and broadcast networks make their decisions on the basis of many factors, with ethics being only one of many, and not necessarily the largest. The publisher who wants to stay in business must ask not only what is right, but what is good for circulation and ad revenue. Yet the media manager who sees only the bottom line has sold out his or her journalistic integrity, and ultimately that is sensed by readers.

In fact, most publishers and broadcasters operate somewhere between the two extremes of absolute candor and utter hypocrisy. Conventions of reporters, editors and owners annually devote their programs to discussions of what is professionally honorable and right; at such meetings, mavericks who on some previous occasion displayed the courage to stand against the crowd are loudly applauded.

But that's after the fact. The ethical decisions that require commitment, courage and wisdom are made not by program committees planning conventions, but by individuals, often under intense pressure and with only hours or even minutes for reflection, and with none of the comfort of knowing what herd instinct eventually will say was the right thing to do.

The crucial consideration for media making ethical decisions in times of crisis is to remember that our founding fathers saw the press as essential to democracy precisely because it was separate from government, able to stand apart and comment independently. This hardly means that the columnist writing about the president's performance in a time of crisis necessarily must be critical in order to be ethical. It does mean that even in extreme situations like the present one, the media best serve their country by reporting and reflecting on the truth as they see it, as independent observers.

At their best, the press challenge not only the facts of the case, but the ways in which the questions are framed. A superb example is Mark Danner's op-ed column in the October 16 New York Times, an essay that looks through a different prism: "The 19 men who changed the world on September 11 used as their primary weapon not box cutters or jet airliners but something more American and much more powerful: the television set. The box cutters and the planes were tools in constructing the great master image, the Spectacular; the television set was their delivery vehicle.... However ardently we stare at the blurry night-vision photographs from Kabul, the battlefield is here, in the American mind. The anthrax incidents, in bringing to the surface a latent hysteria, are more important skirmishes in this new war than anything that happens in the Afghan mountains.''

This is not to say that the media's only role is to disagree with the government. Was it time to stop giving bin Laden carte blanche use of American TV to preach hatred for America? I think so. Does a fair editorial writer cut a new president some slack during an extreme test of the chief executive's ability to deal with situations no one ever foresaw? There again, I think the answer is yes. But it is an answer the media must arrive at by its own judgments, not because cheering the home team is the popular or even the patriotic thing to do.

Recommended readings:

Mark Danner, "The Battlefield in the American Mind,'' New York Times, 16 October 2001, p. A31.

Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Anchor Books, 2000).

Frank Rich, "No News Is Good News,'' New York Times, 15 October 2001, p. A23.

Rob Elder is Retired editor at San Jose Mercury News and Member of the Advisory Board at Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

For more ethical perspectives on the terrorist attacks, click here.

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