Our national news media, which is as biased as ever, more untrustworthy than ever, and less professional than ever, is also more self-righteous than ever, which, I suppose, figures. The most recent display of self-righteousness, along with gratuitous recklessness and arrogance, is the Los Angeles Times’ decision to publish photos of American soldiers posing happily next to the bloody mess that had been the bodies of Afghan suicide bombers. The Pentagon asked the Times not to run the photos, for obvious reasons. The mission in Afghanistan is hanging by a thread as it is, our relationship with the government and the populace serially wounded by a series of unnecessary events that placed the U.S. in a terrible light: in January, a video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban soldiers; in February, the botched disposal of copies of the Quaran, and shortly thereafter, the rampage of a deranged U.S. soldier, who went door to door killing Afghan civilians. Such episodes, and the publicity they receive, jeopardize American interests and cost lives, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta explained while condemning the Times’ irresponsible decision.
For the LA Times to take such action, which supposedly followed days of deliberation, it should have been able to come up with a powerful and persuasive rationale why the publication of two-year old photos was essential enough to outbalance the likelihood that the publication could kill people and undermine the suppression of the Taliban. It could not. The justification, when all was said, boils down to “we did it because we can, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” The excuses from various reporters, staff, and unethical journalism apologists:
- “It’s our responsibility to report fully on the mission in Afghanistan, and it was important to publish these photos to tell the full story of the war….” Boilerplate. It’s also your responsibility to be responsible. The photos were two years old, not breaking news. Reporting is not supposed to interfere with events; reporting on a mission is not supposed to sabotage it. This was not a new development or anything that educated the public about the war; there was no urgency or overarching reason why the public had a need to know this, now.
- “…the soldiers’ actions violated the U.S. military’s general code of conduct.” Yes it did, and if those photos could have been published without causing more problems than they solved, I’d agree that this makes them newsworthy. This, however, was not an atrocity or a war crime, like Abu Ghraib, or the desecration of dead combatants, which violates the Geneva conventions. These were G.I.’s mugging by an enemy victim of his own fanaticism, who just as easily could have blown up one of the soldiers. As military misconduct goes, this is jaywalking.
- “[T]he insurgents don’t need any extra motivation to attack us. It’s a very dangerous place over there. They face a lot of risks already.” This jaw-droppingly stupid excuse from David Zucchino, the reporter responsible for the story, demonstrates the astounding arrogance of the media. This isn’t Zucchino’s judgment to make: the professionals in Afghanistan and at the Pentagon, who are charged with running operations in war, told his paper that the photos would endanger U.S. personnel. Their expertise is worthy of respect; his is not. He just wants to get his big story published, and is searching for rationalizations. He came up with a whopper, too: “thinks are bad already; nothing I do can make it worse, so it’s OK.” That one gets added to the list.
- The photos “remind us that war is terrible.” You know, I think we’ve got that by now. If necessary, you can remind us later, at a time when it won’t make this war more terrible.
And finally this, from Seymour Hersh, an important muckracker, reporter and journalist: “It’s not our job to be on the team. “
Wrong. It may not be the news media’s job to be on the team, but they are on the team, and their job, a hard part of it to be sure, is to know when their duty to their nation trumps their narrower duties as journalists. Journalists are still citizens and Americans, with the same duties and loyalties of the rest of us. I have no doubt that had the current crop of journalists been our burden during World War II, Nazi Germany would rule the West today. Some arrogant and self-righteous reporter like Seymour Hersh would have discovered key details about the Normandy invasion, or the cracking of the ENIGMA code, or the plans to drop the atom bomb, and gleefully put it on page 1. Millions of lives would have been lost, whole races exterminated, and the journalists would just shrug and say “the public had a right to know.” Our Constitution grants journalists nearly unlimited privilege and power because of the essential nature of open communication in a free society. Unlimited privilege and power, however, is a menace in the hands of arrogant, self-righteous fools who either refuse to exercise responsible judgment or who are incapable of it.
These photos were sensational and inflammatory, and nothing else. They tell us nothing about war that we didn’t know before, but their publication should enlighten us further about how irresponsible our news media has become.